DAYTONA BEACH — Walking into a stranger’s home in Orange City two years ago after being removed from her parents, Paxton Zancker was tense and had no idea what to expect.
The foster care teen said she came from a troubled home and was not used to “structure or responsibility or how to be a young lady and respect myself and others.”
But she quickly found not only a home, but a loving family with Kim and Bill White.
“Without these people, I have no idea where I would be,” Zancker, 15, spoke through tears Friday to a lobby full of foster parents and child-welfare officials. “They gave me the strength to let me be who I am today. You help get us through the toughest times.”
David Wilkins, state secretary for the Department of Children & Families, hopes to find more foster parents like the Whites through a new foster care initiative, which includes seeking to add 1,200 new foster parents in Florida over the next year.
He kicked off the initiative Friday at the annual Florida State Foster/Adoptive Parent Association Conference at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort that continues through Sunday.
“We, in essence, want a family for every child,” Wilkins said.
With an increase in children going into foster care due to several factors including abuse of prescription drugs, the state is facing crowded foster homes and too many children in group homes, according to Wilkins and his wife, Tanya, who has played an integral role in the initiative.
Statewide, about 20,000 children are in out-of-home care, which includes foster homes, group homes, relatives’ homes and other placements. For Volusia, Flagler and Putnam counties, the number is 1,055 — the highest it has been since 2004.
The local foster care agency, Community Partnership for Children, is working on identifying the causes. But some reasons, officials say, include more parents abusing prescription drugs; children staying in care longer because of a lack of affordable housing, day care and employment opportunities for their parents; and relatives, particularly grandparents, struggling to care for their grandchildren.
Tanya Wilkins said there is a “huge, huge problem here in Florida” with the state last year losing more foster parents than it recruited.
“We need many, many more foster parents and not just any kind of foster parent and it’s not about room and board any more,” Tanya Wilkins said. “We need foster parents who are going to focus on these children and do what these children need to be successful adults.”
The “Fostering Florida’s Future” initiative (www.fosteringflorida.com/), Wilkins said, not only works on recruiting and retaining foster parents and providing more training and support but also helps the children become more successful. Success means not only helping children with their grades and graduating, but “letting kids in foster care be kids” by being involved in extracurricular activities and spending time with friends.
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