Close your eyes and picture your childhood home. Imagine adults you have never met entering your home and taking you from the only family you know, with only the clothes on your back. You are quickly handed over to strangers to live in a strange house, without even your brother or sister for comfort and support. Now open your eyes.

Unfortunately, this is a necessary part of many Northwest Florida children’s lives as they are removed from a home, where they are being neglected or abused, and being placed in a safe home. The foster home they are placed in is key to their future success.

Justin was one such child who just needed someone to show him love.  At 18-months-old, Justin’s mother left the family. He was living with his father and stepmother when the Department of Children and Families removed him and his four siblings from their home due to neglect and domestic violence. As is often the case, there was nowhere for the children to stay together so they were split into separate foster homes.

That began a time when Justin was unsettled and uncertain of what was going to happen to him as he remembers being moved three or four times in the foster care system. As many kids do, he found it difficult to adjust to these changes at first and was afraid of what might happen. He says he became shy and didn’t talk much to the families he lived with at first, something that is not unusual as children adjust to this trauma in their life.

Eventually, Justin was placed in a foster home where he stayed for three years before being adopted. His foster family provided him the love and support he needed, including many things most of us take for granted. Justin fondly recalls time spent with PeePaw, his foster father. “I was really small and would sit in his chair with him and watch westerns and Texas Walker Ranger with him,” remembers Justin. “He was a father figure to me and would protect me. He would take me to my room at night and tuck me in and say a prayer.”

There is another moment that stands out in Justin’s mind from his time with his foster parents. “I broke my collar bone and I was surprised at how fast they responded and were there with me,” said Justin. He explains that this showed him how much they cared for him, something he hadn’t always experienced.

At nine-years-old Justin was adopted. His adopted mother, Jennifer had been a foster parent and decided that she wanted a child that “would stay forever.” Since she is single, she did not think adoption would be an option for her, but was pleasantly surprised when she learned that her single status would not keep her from adopting.

Adopting Justin was an easy decision for Jennifer and she made up her mind based on what she had been told about him. “I knew before I met him that I was going to adopt him,” stated Jennifer. “When I met him, it just confirmed it.”

Today, at age fifteen, Justin attends North Bay Haven where he is involved in cross country, soccer, track and choir, and excels at them all. He is considered a leader in cross country and takes that designation seriously as he helps his teammates. “Running gets your mind off stuff,” said Justin. “It’s just you are very set to make a new score every time, a new running record for yourself. It builds you up, building up other people, just helping them out if they’re not as fast as you, if they are running behind and helping them out a little bit.”

Without the support of all of his foster families, Justin may not have made it this far. He still maintains contact with his last foster family and is close to them. In addition, he is now able to have some contact with his siblings. He is able to visit with his 14-year-old brother, Jake, several times each year, and all of his siblings at least once per year. Jake, who is also adopted, now lives in Tallahassee, but both boys adoptive parents make sure they are able to visit each other. Jake’s adoptive father, Gordy, believes it is important to keep siblings together as much as possible. “It’s important because the relationships matter to the kids – they all care about each other a great deal, and it is important to each of them individually to maintain their relationships,” said Gordy. “I believe this is the case for all siblings in care, and I believe we should be prioritizing the maintenance of sibling relationships while kids are in care and also encouraging adoptive parents to not only maintain bio-sib relationships but (when necessary) reach out to re-establish relationships for sibs who the system has allowed to be separated.”

Currently there are not enough foster homes in Northwest Florida for the number of children removed from their homes. When there is no local home for a child, the child is sent to live somewhere else in the state, causing more trauma for that child as they are moved away from their school, friends and possibly siblings. It is Life Management Center’s goal to make sure there is a foster home for every child so that this does not happen. To learn more about being a foster parent, visit our website at www.lmccares.org or call Kasey Killebrew at 522-4485, ext. 8404.

Note: Jennifer and Gordy were both Life Management Center employees at the time they adopted their sons. Life Management Center encourages and supports our employees to foster and adopt children who need a home. Those foster parent and adoption approvals are overseen by the local Community-Base Care System to ensure there is no conflict of interest.