The world can be a pretty tough place, and home is supposed to be the place that is safe from harm’s way. But that is not always the case, including for children. Addressing a variety of foster care and other needs is Fayette County’s nonprofit Bloom Our Youth, an organization which provides placement in the Friday-Johnson children’s home, operates the Bloom Closet in Fayetteville and works with foster parents.
The Friday-Johnson Home is a residential children’s home in Brooks that shelters up to 10 children between the ages of 6-18. The average length of stay is eight months. For some, the Friday-Johnson Home is a temporary living arrangement and for others, it is their last stop before they are either adopted or aging out of the foster care system.
Bloom Program Coordinator Judy Matthews said the Friday-Johnson Home provides children with a safe, loving environment while meeting their needs, including medical attention, education, mentoring, transportation, and the opportunity to participate in recreation, arts and community activities.
Bloom’s mission includes a foster care program which recruits, trains and supports foster families. The organization also operates The Bloom Closet, a free clothing resource center in Fayetteville for foster children. Over the past year, The Bloom Closet has provided free clothing, books, toys, school supplies and baby gear to more than 450 foster children from 57 Georgia counties, Matthews said.
For decades in the United States, the overriding philosophy in direct care staffing in the field of human services has been that the person receiving services from an empathetic caregiver can learn more and have a safer and more fulfilling life today than he had yesterday. That mission is not lost on the children who are victims of abuse or neglect when they enter the Friday-Johnson Home.
Matthews said there are a variety or reasons a child might find a temporary home at the Friday-Johnson Home, adding that Bloom receives 30-55 calls a month from DFCS workers from all over the state seeking placements for children in foster care who need a foster home or group home placement. For many who find placement at the Friday-Johnson Home, the situation that brought them to Bloom is a matter of personal tragedy.
“Less than a third of children’s birth parents are married to each other or living together,” Matthews said. ”Several children have had one or both parents who were deceased. Many parents are incarcerated. Backgrounds include parental substance abuse, instability, homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, child neglect, medical neglect and physical abuse. We have seen perfectly round fresh burn marks on children. Children have arrived with lice or scabies. Children have arrived with welt marks over their bodies. Sometimes children have been abused sexually by a parent, relative, family friend or sibling. Many children have had exposure to adult sexual activities such as pornography.”
For so many of the children who arrive at the residence in Brooks, their condition would pull at the heart-strings of most people.
“Children usually have had little to no dental care, immunizations are rarely current and medical care is almost nonexistent,” said Matthews. “Children often have very sketchy school attendance prior to their arrival and could be years behind their grade levels. Very few children have a history of church attendance. They arrive bewildered by being in foster care. Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t belong here.’ They typically fall into bed exhausted by all the events of the day and the second day is extremely hard, as are almost all the days afterward. Very few children arrive with extra clothes or school supplies or even a toothbrush. About half are prescribed psychotropic medications.
“They sometimes resist eating ‘real food’ because they have lived on a diet of Happy Meals. One boy wanted only bologna and hotdogs. They resist completing homework assignments as it is almost always a new experience to have a regular study time at home each day. They miss their parents or previous caregivers. They are afraid they will never go home and unfortunately this is too often the case – for some there simply is no home to return to.”
As with genuine caregivers everywhere, the staff at the Friday-Johnson Home provide a safe haven for a life and a history often consumed by storms.
“After some time goes by and their lives are filled with regular bedtimes and mealtimes, school and medical care, love and discipline, they begin to adjust to being at the group home or in a foster home,” Matthews said. “Still, there is an underlying current of sadness and anxiety. It’s hard to feel normal when nothing in your life is ‘normal’ as you know it. It’s hard to feel happy for very long when you have been removed from your whole life and world, placed with strangers who have rules and schedules and expectations, where children are expected to attend school every day and brush their teeth twice a day. These regular healthy activities are not ‘normal’ for many of our kids. Stability is something hardly any of our children have ever experienced and it is the most healing element in their stay with us. Little by little by little, they may begin to thrive, they may begin to heal, they may begin to understand that being taken from their families was not their fault and they may begin to attach to foster families, new friends and caregivers.”
Yet for the progress that is witnessed, past memories will linger. That is why Bloom partners with a variety of service providers in the community who can bridge the gap between a history of abuse or neglect and a future where the safe haven the child found can continue.
“They will always have the past they have which brought them into foster care. They will always have their memories and they will always have the experience of having extreme life-shattering loss and grief,” Matthews said. “We partner with Custody Holders, teachers, therapists, pastors, doctors, board members and mentors to work toward more positive futures and good outcomes. This may mean adoption into a ‘forever family.’ More and more children are finding a permanent refuge in kinship care or guardianship with a relative or a family friend or a caring coach, mentor, neighbor, teacher, church member or friend.”
Life really can be altered for the better. The proof of that reality was expressed in the words of one of the Friday-Johnson Home’s residents.
“As one of our young men told a direct care staff member before he left the Friday-Johnson Home to go into independent living, ‘You saved my life,” said Matthews.
Matthews said Bloom shelters an average of 40-50 foster children per year from Fayette County and surrounding areas.
“Although the number of calls for Fayette County children vary from year to year, we have received nine calls from DFCS (Dept. of Family and Children Services) for Fayette County children in the last 12 months. We were able to successfully place six of them in our care at the Friday-Johnson group home, which houses up to 10 children total,” said Bloom Executive Director Becky Davenport.
“Placement in a group home is only one of the options for care and the state will typically try to resolve the issue in other ways first, such as sending the child to stay with relatives while requiring counseling for the parents. Bloom functions as the community’s safety net. When other options fail or are unavailable we provide a safe and loving environment for the children in need.”
Davenport said the organization always gives priority to Fayette County children referred to the program.
“But if a child has issues which are beyond the scope of our basic care program such as being suicidal, sexually acting out or starting fires, we are required by our licensing to turn them away as we don’t have the staffing and security to deal with these more complicated and serious issues,” Davenport said. ”These children would be referred out to other programs in outlying counties which offer more specialized care.”
The rule of thumb, said Davenport, is that a child be placed no more than 50 miles from home.
“Due to a shortage of foster care homes, this rule is not always followed,” Davenport explained. ”We actually get calls for placement from DFCS offices from all over the state, some as far away as north Georgia. The majority of them do come from outlying counties. We get many calls from counties to our south (such as Muscogee, Lamar, Butts) because these counties are poorer and have fewer resources.”
Bloom last year received 288 calls from DFCS in Fayette and other counties.
Matthews said each year 50,000 children are reported abused and neglected in the state of Georgia.
Currently, there are more than 7,000 children in the state foster care system. Most have been removed from their homes because they were abused, neglected or left stranded by a family tragedy.
The Fayette County organizations working with children in foster care include Bloom, DFCS and Advo-Kids CASA.
In Fayette County there were 70 children in 2011 and 58 in 2012 with a substantiated incident of abuse and/or neglect, according to the Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GFCP)
There were 18 children in 2012 and 13 children in 2013 who left foster care and were reunited with their families or placed with a relative within one year of entering foster care, according to GFCP