For many children who are victims of abuse or neglect, a social worker is the first adult who truly cares about them and wants the best for them. In honor of Social Work Month, held each year in March, the staff of Embrace Florida Kids salutes these dedicated and compassionate professionals who work tirelessly to keep children safe.
The theme of Social Work Month 2022 is “The Time is Right for Social Work,” according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The month-long campaign aims to inform the public, lawmakers and policymakers of the vital work and lifechanging impact the profession has on the most vulnerable in our communities.
“For many children, a social worker’s actions can be lifesaving,” said Kristin Alberda, Executive Director of Embrace Florida Kids, which provides homes, healing and hope to children and youth in dire circumstances.
“Social workers are true heroes,” she said. “They may be called to dangerous situations in the middle of the night, they help ensure that hurting children have a safe place to stay and that all their needs are met, and they often provide the love and hugs these children and youth so desperately need.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is one of the fastest growing professions in the country. Currently, there are more than 700,000 professional social workers in the United States and more than 3 million worldwide. In Florida, about 36 percent of the state’s nearly 30,000 social workers are child, family and school social workers while the remainder work in other areas, including healthcare, mental health, and substance abuse.
“Social workers touch millions of lives each day,” Alberda said. “It’s a hard job but it’s one of the most important ones. We are so grateful for the tremendous impact they make in the lives of vulnerable children and families, especially those in Florida.”
Monica Matthews was at the lowest point of her life when she met Cordivido Grice, a Family Intervention Specialist with Embrace Florida Kids’ Family Preservation program.
The Milton mother battled mental health issues and had lost custody of her daughter because state child welfare officials feared for the child’s safety. Her daughter had been in foster care for a year, and Matthews was determined to regain custody and be a good mother. With Grice’s help, she accomplished her goals. “I could feel her sorrow,” Grice said. “She knew she messed up, but I told her she could learn from that and grow.”
The Family Preservation program is designed to help at-risk families stay together. EFK’s Family Intervention Specialists work closely with parents to ensure that they have the skills and resources they need to provide safe, loving homes for their children.
“This life is a learning process,” Grice said. “People go through a lot of ups and downs, and we help the parents empower themselves to overcome their roadblocks.”
At first, Matthews was hesitant to work with Grice because she wasn’t sure of his motives. “I told her that I was on her team and that I wanted to help her do whatever she needed to do to get her daughter back,” Grice said. “She had such relief when she realized I wasn’t there to take her daughter away.”
Matthews attended counseling and parenting classes, and she received medical care that helped her get her mental health issues under control. Grice taught her self-care techniques that helped her manage her stress and anxiety, and he provided discipline techniques that focused on teaching instead of punishing.
As a result, her relationship with her daughter improved considerably, and she learned to focus on the positive instead of the negative. “She worked so hard,” Grice said.
“I could see that she loved her daughter a lot and that she wanted to be a better parent. It gives me gratification to see people come out of a bad place in their lives.”
Matthews said she is grateful for the Family Preservation program and the difference it made in her life. “I am well pleased to know that there are agencies in place that actually care about the family,” she said. “We were treated with courtesy and respect, and Mr. Grice has impacted our lives in a positive way that will be with us forever. My daughter is thriving and our family is happy, healthy and full of love.”
Laura Barkalow and Jessie Fancher became fast friends after meeting while walking their kids to school. The Barkalows had recently moved into their Fort Walton home, and the ladies were thrilled to discover that they lived across the street from each other.
They had no idea just how deep their connection would grow. Fast forward six years, and the Barkalows and Fanchers are two families raising nine children who are all connected by love. “It’s been a really amazing experience,” Mrs. Fancher said.
“Our kids have a lot of people who love them.”
The story began when Laura and her husband, Rev. Dave Barkalow, the Senior Pastor at Fort Walton Beach First United Methodist Church, got licensed as foster parents through Embrace Florida Kids. They already had three biological children – Andy, Zadie and Rose – so the plan was to provide love and a temporary home for foster children who would eventually be reunited with their families. It didn’t take long, however, for them to fall in love with the first children placed in their care – Michael and his infant brother Xavier.
A year and a half later, the Barkalows learned that the boys’ birth mother was pregnant again, so they decided to foster that baby, as well. Saphira completed their family, and in April of 2018 they made it official and adopted all three children.
“Sometimes you start on a journey and you wind up someplace better than where you thought you were going,” Rev. Barkalow said.
“We didn’t even know we needed them,” his wife added, “but they were definitely meant to be in our family.” Meanwhile, Jessie and Eric Fancher, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, were busy with their young children, Ada and Eli. The two families traded babysitting, their kids played together, they shared family dinners, and they grew even closer.
The Fanchers had thought about fostering or adopting themselves and had met with the Embrace Florida Kids staff. They weren’t sure it was feasible, though, since they move around so much as a military family. When they were transferred to Germany, it seemed like the decision had been made.
Not long after the Fanchers moved, though, Mrs. Barkalow learned that her children’s birth mother was expecting again. Knowing that it was likely that this child would enter the foster care system as well, the young mother decided adoption would be the best option for her child.
“I called Jessie and she immediately said, ‘We’ll take him,’” Mrs. Barkalow said.
Mrs. Fancher flew in from Germany a few weeks before the birth mom’s due date and was in the delivery room when Owen, now 2, was born.
Although they are no longer neighbors since the Fanchers are currently stationed in Albuquerque, the two families are grateful that Michael, Xavier, Saphira and Owen will always be in each other’s lives. The families regularly connect through FaceTime, phone calls and photos, but the Fanchers hope to one day return to Florida or the Southeast.
“We want them to grow up knowing each other and knowing that their birth mom was doing the best she could for them,” Mrs. Fancher said. “It’s been really sweet for all nine children,” Mrs. Barkalow added. “Our older children were already best friends, but now we’re all family.”
Looking back, it’s been easy for the families to see God’s hand at work. Since military families and Methodist ministers move around a lot, the fact that the two families were neighbors is amazing in itself. “It wasn’t the military dictating where we lived, God made that choice to get us where we needed to be,” Mrs. Fancher said. “People are placed in your life for a reason, and we know what led us all to be at the same place at the same time.”
One of the main goals of Embrace Florida Kids is to equip vulnerable children and at-risk families to overcome adversity. That’s why, when a new team of workers with the agency’s family preservation program was faced with the challenges of COVID-19, they knew the only thing they could do was to practice what they preach.
Over the past few years, the demand for foster care and family preservation services in Northwest Florida has nearly doubled. As a result, the EFK staff has doubled as well, and a new unit was formed to handle cases in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties while a second team works with families in Okaloosa and Walton counties.
The newly created team had just started working together when the pandemic hit. Some were new to the agency while others were learning a new role. Suddenly, everything they prepared for was no longer feasible. “We had just gotten kind of comfortable when we had to revamp everything we had just learned.” said Joe Sims, Program Manager.
“We had to be creative and figure out how to do things together.”
The staff strives to help parents who have lost or are at risk of losing their children gain the skills they need to provide a safe, loving, healthy home. The program, which has a 95 percent success rate, involves intensive in-home treatment. Since many of the parents didn’t have strong parental role models themselves, the EFK staff helps them develop parenting skills, discipline techniques and coping strategies. They also help families access supportive services, as well as counseling and medical care when necessary.
“We’re trying to keep the family intact,” Sims said, adding that taking children out of the home they know and away from parents they love can be traumatic for everyone involved.
“Instead of removing the kids from the family, let’s teach, let’s encourage, let’s motivate.”
Charlotte Thomas, Director of Programs for EFK, said that reunification is always the goal as long as the children can be safe. “Very seldom is there a situation where the family and children don’t want to be together,” she said. “If we can help them repair their situation, we may be planting a seed that germinates over future generations and prevents abuse and neglect.”
Since the program has traditionally involved face-to-face meetings, Sims and team members Antonio Elmore, Cordivido Grice, Shondra Jones and Charsy Anderson had to change gears once COVID hit. “Their resilience in adapting to changing needs and restrictions has been quite impressive, particularly in light of the short time that they have been team members and in their new roles as family intervention specialists,” Thomas said.
Establishing a rapport with the families is critical, so the team has connected with clients through videoconferencing technology and has provided cell phones or additional minutes when necessary. They’ve met clients in their yards while wearing face masks and standing six feet apart. They’ve also played online games with kids in order to make them feel more comfortable and more likely to open up about issues at home.
“We really grew together as a team because we had to help each other out and find new ways to help our families,” Sims said. “This is their race to run, but we’re the people on the sidelines handing out water and orange slices to help them get to the finish line.”
In the five years April Mason has been a foster parent, she’s kept a poster outside her cubicle at work with photos of the children she and her husband have welcomed into their home.
Many of her co-workers at Pen Air Federal Credit Union have heard all about the joyful chaos that comes with having a house full of kids, and they’ve supported April through the years as she opened her heart to hurting children. Most recently, they voted to award Embrace Florida Kids (EFK), a ministry of the United Methodist Children’s Home, with a $5,000 gift through their Jeans for Communerosity program.
Communerosity, “where community meets generosity,” is an employee-driven fundraising effort, and Mason nominated the ministry for the award. She and her co-workers donate money in order to wear jeans to work on certain days, and the funds raised are matched by Pen Air. Employees vote on the nominated nonprofits, and the money is divided equally among those selected. This year, 10 nonprofits received the award.
“I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to educate people in our community about the need for foster care,” Mason said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad things in the world and there are so many children who don’t have homes. It’s been a real eye opener.”
Mason said she had always wanted to be a foster parent, and she and her husband decided to move forward after talking with friends who are licensed through EFK. “We have been blessed with more than we need and we wanted to share what we have,” she said.
The Masons, who have a 6-year-old daughter, have fostered about 15 children. Some have stayed for years while others were only with them a few days until being placed with family members. “Our daughter has really never known any difference,” Mason said. “She just thinks she has a whole lot of siblings.”
Soon, she really will. The Masons are in the process of adopting biological siblings – a boy and a girl – who have been with them for a year and a half. They still plan to keep fostering even after the adoption is finalized.
“I love being able to help these kids and their families,” Mason said. “We’ve kept in touch with about 80 percent of the kids and they still come and spend the night. They’re a big part of our lives and our daughter’s life.”