Temporary home, lasting impact

Editor's Note: Sadie Fitzpatrick uses this space to explore the character and quirks that make Ocala uniquely wonderful and occasionally irksome. 

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Posted February 18, 2022 | By Sadie Fitzpatrick

Joy and Stephen Zedler couldn’t wait any longer.

The Ocala couple always knew they would become foster parents one day, and they planned to do so once their three biological children were older. But the need for foster parents in Marion County was, and remains, dire. In 2013, the couple opened their door, and their hearts, to a baby boy.

This baby boy arrived having already experienced a lifetime of pain. He was born two months premature after being exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero. When he was placed with the Zedlers at two months old, he had suffered broken ribs, a third-degree burn and skull fractures from his previous placement in a foster home outside of Marion County.

Joy Zedler quickly realized that she and her family would need help learning how to navigate the physical and emotional trauma their foster baby had suffered before joining their family.

Their experiences and emotions mirror those of many members of the foster care network in Marion County, a dedicated community whose numbers have dropped sharply in recent years while the number of children needing care has remained steady.

As of Feb. 11, there are 808 children in foster care in Marion County, most of whom are between the ages of newborn to 5, according to Kids Central, Inc. They enter the foster care system due to abuse, neglect, or other circumstances, and the system aims to provide them a safe, stable environment until they be can reunited with their parents or extended family.

Kids Central serves as the lead agency for community-based care for child welfare. This is the result of a shift in the state of Florida’s management of child welfare, which allows nonprofits around the state to handle the care of foster children on a local level.

As such, Kids Central is responsible for prevention and diversion services, in-home case management, foster home recruitment and licensing, foster care case management, and adoption case management for the Circuit 5 area, which is comprised of Marion, Lake, Sumter, Citrus, and Hernando counties.

According to Kids Central, there are 78 foster homes in our county with 220 beds available, but Marion County needs 40-50 more beds to best serve the children in their care. This would increase the chances that a foster child will be placed with a family that is in their school district, providing them much-needed stability during a turbulent time.

John Cooper, CEO of Kids Central, Inc., cites the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a factor in the decline in foster homes in Marion County. As lockdowns and quarantines occurred, some foster homes were not willing to take in new placements. Also, the organization recruits many of its foster parents through in-person events at churches and community gatherings, which were post­poned or canceled as the pandemic raged on.

Kids Central provides foster parents with mentors and foster parent navigators to help these foster families through the process. Foster children are also provided a dedicated case manager to aid them through the system.

As their foster baby healed and bonded with them, the Zedlers fell in love with him and chose to adopt him. When he became available for adoption, so, too, did his older sister. The Zedlers quickly became a family of seven.

Though their little boy’s physical wounds had healed, at around 18 months old, he began to experience episodes of intense rage and tantrums. This led to him being diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which affects his self-regulation and impulse control.

“After a year of having both of them, we were struggling,’’ Joy Zedler said. “We thought we could raise them like we’d raised our biological children. That’s not how it happened. Traditional parenting was making it worse.We were at a loss as a family.”

At a conference, they discovered the work of Dr. Karyn Purvis, who pioneered the practice of Trust-Based Relational Intervention, or TBRI, which is a trauma-informed, attachment-based intervention for vulnerable children. Its main tenet is connection.

The results were profound.

“This gave us a paradigm shift on how to view the behaviors in our house,’’ Joy Zedler said. “(The children’s) behavior is an expression of a need. I knew that if I was struggling, others must be struggling as well.

“In 2018 we started the Pearl Project. There’s such a need, so many foster parents need these resources. TBRI was such a lifesaver and we wanted to get this information out there to help the families, and ultimately, the kids,” she said.

The Pearl Project provides training sessions on TBRI for foster, adoptive, and kinship (relatives who are fostering) families as well as support and nurture groups for foster families and children.

Joy Zedler said she hopes more families will be willing to welcome a foster child.

“I know a lot of people say they fear getting their hearts broken, that they couldn’t imagine growing close to a child and then having to give that child back (to their biological parents). Yes, it’s temporary, but the lasting impact is huge. You are planting seeds in them. You are providing them safety and stability during a very difficult time in their lives,” she said.

Florida residents aged 21 and older can apply to become a foster parent. Applicants must be financially stable and provide appropriate sleeping arrangements for a child. A 10-week training course, background check, and home study are required before becoming a certified foster parent.

Kids Central has worked to make the training course easily accessible by providing virtual training sessions and flexible meeting schedules for potential foster parents. In the past, some parents waited up to a year to receive their certification. Kids Central has streamlined the certification process so that after course completion and a home study is performed potential foster parents are certified in 30 days.

Those unable to foster can help foster children in a variety of other ways. As Cooper of Kids Central, Inc. remarked, “Everyone can do something.”

Reach out to foster parents you may know and provide a meal for the whole family. Advocate for more financial resources from the Florida legislature for the child welfare system by calling your congressman. Host a team member from Kids Central, Inc. or the Pearl Project to discuss foster care at your next networking event, Bible study, or church service.

A bed. Such a simple notion, but a bed represents stability, consistency, routine. A bed in a loving home can serve as a beacon of hope for vulnerable children during the most traumatic time in their lives.

Do you have room in your home and your heart to serve as that beacon?

To learn more about becoming a foster parent, visit www.kidscentralinc.org.

To support the Pearl Project and their mission, visit www.thepearlproject.org.