More than 400,000 American children are in foster care, and 25,000 of them are in Florida. Their average length of stay is 25.3 months, according to the Ackerman Institute for the Family – and they have rates of post-traumatic stress disorder similar to veterans of war.
Shannon Carroll owns and operates Redemptive Love Farm in Tallahassee. She and her husband have adopted 7 children and fostered many more.
They've cared for children with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and PTSD – including the trauma endured by survivors of child sexual abuse. One child she ultimately adopted had been in a hospital for ten years, had cerebral palsy, and was fed through a tube.
"I prayed, and I thought, 'I am not a nurse. I can't do this. I am not equipped for a child of this kind of care level,' Carroll says. "Somebody who is dear to me said, 'You know, this child's problem is not that she needs more doctors, that she needs more nurses, that she needs more therapists. Her problem is that she's an orphan, and she needs a mom and a dad.' And that's where we stepped in – I could be a mother."
Michelle Scott came into foster care at age 3 and was adopted at 8. In between, she had 14 placements in foster and group homes. Now about to graduate from Florida State University, she says she tested her adoptive parents at first.
"'Is this really the one? Is this unconditional? Am I going to be moved? Are they going to give up on me?' I know that that's happened to a lot of adoptive parents," Scott says. Now she advises, "Stay with them. Keep showing them that you love them, that you want them in your life forever; you're not going to give up on them."
The effects of trauma are profound, says Jane Johnson, director of advocacy at the Florida Council for Community Mental Health. Also a Guardian ad Litem representing a child with developmental disabilities, she's seen the impact first hand.
"He's acted out in every – he's had probably 30 placements since he's been in foster care, but he doesn't believe anyone can love him, because life to this point, for him, has shown him that he's not lovable," Johnson says. She adds that children in the system often need quality trauma-informed care to counteract the "scarring of their brains and their hearts."
Martie Gillen, who teaches "Children – Trauma and Resiliency" at the University of Florida and has long been a foster and adoptive parent, agrees.
"We need to change our lens, and instead of saying, 'What's wrong with you? Why on earth are you acting this way,’ we need to look at what happened to that child for them to exhibit the behaviors they're doing," she says.
If foster and adoptive parents view a child's behavior as willful disobedience, Gillen continues, they'll be harsher on the child as a result.
"But if I view this behavior as survival – and thank goodness that child has that behavior because they survived and they're here today because of that – then I take a totally different parenting approach," Gillen says.
While not everyone can take in a child, everyone can do something to reduce the number of abused and neglected children without families. Mary K. Wimsett is an attorney in northeast Florida who has finalized more than 3,000 adoptions.
"You can do something as simple as make dinner for a foster family," she says. "Thanks to social media, there are now groups all over the state that support foster parents."
For instance, Foster Florida serves foster families and posts their needs online, from car seats to cribs to meals to a night off.
"There's a family that just took placement of 5 siblings, and can't someone bring them dinner tonight? We had a foster mom recently who donated a kidney to one of the children in her foster home – and the community came together and provided meals to them for, I think, 3 or 4 months," Wimsett says.
You can donate to non-profits that support children in foster care with everything from school supplies to scholarships.
You can also support children by volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem. Children with a guardian to advocate for them are twice as likely to be adopted as those without.