Single parents, same-sex couples recruited in 'critical' need for foster homes in Central Florida

April 16, 2018 – When Steven Arauz decided he wanted to become a foster dad, he was 26, single and living in a condo on Daytona Beach.

“I was definitely the youngest in my foster training classes,” he said. “But I was at a point where I had graduated college, I had been working for a couple of years, I had traveled around the world, and I had the things I wanted. I was just at a place where I was trying to figure out whether there was more to life.”

In the three years since, Arauz — who now lives in Orlando and teaches sixth-grade history at a private school — has fostered 10 kids, including one who has become his adopted son. And this year, the two joined a Central Florida campaign to recruit “nontraditional” foster parents for what has become a critical need.

“We have tried since we began managing foster care not to be ‘the sky is falling’ type of agency,” said Glen Casel, CEO of the nonprofit Community Based Care of Central Florida, which is leading the effort. “But the truth is that right now we’re pretty strained. And we need the community to really step up.”

Population growth, budget cuts and the opioid epidemic have fueled a sharp rise in the number of children in the state’s care — currently more than 1,300 in Orange and Osceola counties alone. To meet the need, Casel’s agency has called for 100 new foster homes by year’s end, and the agency is appealing to both single adults and same-sex couples.

The region has 350 licensed homes — enough, technically, to meet the need, since most kids taken from their biological parents are placed with relatives. But Community Based Care and other agencies try to do more than find an open bed for each child; they try to find a good fit. Providing an accepting foster parent for a child who is gay or struggling with gender identity can be crucial, Casel said, especially given the region’s already-high percentage of LGBTQ homeless youth.

Though Florida’s ban on gay adoption wasn’t officially repealed until 2015, it had not been enforced for at least five years, and Casel’s agency has allowed gay couples to foster kids since it launched in Seminole County in 2005.

Betty Potts-Cerio and her wife, Melinda Potts-Cerio, enlisted nearly four years ago.

“Our first placement was a little guy and we had him for three weeks. And I kid you not — when he left, I thought my heart had been ripped out of my chest,” said Betty Potts-Cerio, 46, an internet technology manager who lives in Altamonte Springs. “I was just devastated. I cried a lot. But then they called us and said: ‘We have two girls. They’re sisters. What do you think?’ And I don’t think it took us too long to say yes.”

Melinda Potts-Cerio, an account manager at an insurance agency, had been the first to suggest fostering. Betty was still uncertain when she agreed to enroll in training classes in the fall of 2014.

“The class does a great job of scaring the poop out of you. And that’s not a bad thing,” Betty said. “In our case, because we’d never had children of our own, some of the challenge was figuring out what’s normal. But the classes brought in older kids who had been in foster care to come talk to us. They had foster parents who had been through … well, we didn’t get the rainbows and butterflies version.”

Yet the training served them well, the mothers said, and with support from the agency and a local group of foster parents who share advice, they would go on to foster 13 children in the next three years, including the two sisters, whom they have since adopted. At times, they’ve had as many as five children in their home at once.

Foster parents get a small stipend, $18 a day per child, and the children have state-covered health insurance. But parents report they still end up spending more out of their own pockets. They think it’s worth it.

“People say things like, ‘Thank God for you; I could never do that,’ ” Betty said. “We say, ‘Listen, we’re the ones getting this gift. These kids come into our home, and each and every one leaves us a special memory in our hearts.’ ”

The couple only accepts children 5 and younger, but there is a great need for foster homes that will take older children, too.

“The bottom line is that we need diverse foster families,” said Sharon Shoemaker, a licensing and recruitment specialist for the Children’s Home Society in Central Florida. “Single parents are fine. Same-sex couples are fine. Ultimately, if you have a heart for children, find out if this is right for you.”

That was enough to sway Robyn Gold — 25, single and a teacher at Gateway Christian School in Mount Dora.

“I’ve always loved kids,” she said. “When I was little, I used to pretend I ran an orphanage, and that I was the teacher there. And then I grew up and I had this expectation of going to college, meeting my husband, and after graduation getting married and having a family. But that didn’t happen.”

Instead, she is two weeks from graduation from her foster-parent training course. Her friends are planning a “foster shower” for when she’s done so she’ll be equipped with the crib, furniture, toys and supplies she’ll need to cover anyone up to age 8.

She’s nervous, she said, but she doesn’t view the move as some kind of noble sacrifice.

“I spend most of my free time with my family anyway, and I feel like anybody who would be put off by what I’m doing is not somebody I want to be with,” Gold said. “Children are my passion.”

If she needs inspiration, she can look to Arauz. Hearing his story nudged her to move forward — though he is blunt about the challenges. He talks about his experiences in both foster training classes and a foster care ministry he leads at Florida Hospital Seventh Day Adventist Church.

“My first placement was two brothers — 4 and 7 — and the little one, when he got there, he was crying his eyeballs out. He was screaming,” he said. “He had just been taken away, and put in a stranger’s home, and I was the stranger.”

Four days later, when he was just starting to feel a bond, the boys were returned to their home. Arauz was exhausted. His second kid, Quinton — a defiant, hurt, angry 10-year-old with failing grades and a temper — punched holes in the walls.

“Both of us are very open about the fact that, at first, we hated each other,” Arauz said. “He had been in six foster homes in five years, and I could just look at him and see the pain in his face. But within the first week I called the agency and said, ‘I can’t. I need you to take him back.’ ”

The agency had a rule: Barring tragedy or the threat of it, no returns for 30 days. It wasn’t until they had nearly reached that point, when Quinton demanded to be taken to his “next” home, that Arauz realized what this child needed most was someone who wanted him to stay.

“That’s when I began to see a shift,” said Arauz, who officially adopted Quinton on April 25, 2016. “Today he is 13, he’s on the honor roll, he plays in the band, he plays varsity basketball and varsity soccer. He’s a wonderful kid. I can’t imagine my life without him.”

Credit for this story goes to: Kate Santich for the Orlando Sentinel