Program Helps Families Stay Together

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.”

Florida Staff Overcomes Obstacles to Preserve Families

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.

EFK’s new Family Preservation unit is staffed by (L to R) Cordivido Grice, Charsy Anderson, Joe Sims, Antonio Elmore, and Shondra Jones.

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.”

UMCH Finds New Name as it Embraces Kids Through Florida Programs

When UMCH began expanding its programs in Northwest Florida, “Embrace Florida Kids” seemed like the perfect name for the growing ministry. After all, the United Methodist Children’s Home has been wrapping its arms around children in need of homes, healing and hope in Alabama and Northwest Florida for nearly 130 years.

“The name and the logo are changing, but our focus remains the same, and our ministry will function the same,” said Kristin Alberda, Executive Director of Embrace Florida Kids. “In response to God’s Word, we’ll continue embracing and nurturing vulnerable children and families by providing homes, healing and hope.”

In Northwest Florida, that means providing foster homes, group homes, family preservation services, and support for the growing number of vulnerable children and families. “We work with hundreds of children and their families on any given day,” Alberda said. The kids we serve are victims of choices made by adults in their lives. Too often, they have endured unthinkable childhoods through no fault of their own.”

“While we would love to see fewer children needing to be placed in foster care, we know our services will continue to be needed next week, next month and next year,” says Charlotte Thomas,
Director of Programs for Embrace Florida Kids. “Knowing this, we really strive to build effective programs because some kids may not need us right now but they will certainly need us in the
future – we want to be ready to give them the best care and support possible,” Thomas adds.

Here’s a look at how Embrace Florida Kids provides homes, healing and hope:

  • EMBRACE FOSTER CARE. With an office in Pace, the Embrace Foster Care staff recruits, trains, licenses, supports and retains foster families to provide temporary homes for abused, neglected or abandoned children and youth. In 2018, the ministry provided 15,121 days of care to 116 kids in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. The average number of families is about 30, but this number is expected to grow to meet an ever-increasing demand.
  • EMBRACE MILTON GIRLS HOME. Embrace Milton Girls Home provides 24/7 care to girls ages 12-18, who have experienced significant trauma. Last year, 2,469 days of care were provided for a total of 18 girls.
  • EMBRACE FAMILY PRESERVATION. The Embrace Family Preservation program aims to keep families together by helping parents who have lost or are at risk of losing their children. The intensive in-home treatment provides them with the necessary skills to handle challenges in a healthy way and provide safe, loving homes. The agency works with up to 28 families at a time. The program has a 95 percent success rate with no recurrence of abuse. In 2018, UMCH served 389 individuals in 92 families.
  • EMBRACE TEEN CENTER. The center serves youth who have been impacted by the foster care system and their caregivers. Services include tutoring, study skills training, interview training and assistance with job applications and resumes. Students also participate in enrichment and social activities. Caregivers have access to a clothes closet, supply room and food pantry to help offset expenses. Last year, 29 teens were empowered at the center.

“Our programs are life-changing,” Alberda said. “There is nothing more rewarding than watching the children and youth in our care begin to heal. When kids have a loving home, regular meals, structure, and a safe place to rest, they begin to blossom. The transformation is not overnight but it’s a joy to watch it unfold.”