Central Florida foster care agency fighting for larger cut of new funding

ORLANDO, Fla. — The president of the community-based care agency that manages foster parents in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties is fighting for funding he says will be crucial to keep kids safe.

9 Investigates spoke extensively with Embrace Families about the foster care system following the arrest of Sanford foster father Justin Johnson Senior, who is accused of creating child pornography featuring the children placed in his care.

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Embrace Families President Glen Casel says the agency is only expected to receive a small cut of some new money out of Tallahassee to address the foster care system, because of something many people would consider a success: a smaller percentage of kids in foster care.

Embrace says an additional $150 million is expected to be given to lead agencies across the state, tied to legislation that’s headed to the governor’s desk. Even though 14% of the state’s investigators are assigned to this tri-county area, Casel says just 1% of that money is being funneled to Embrace.

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Casel worries that will impact the agency’s ability to recruit and retain strong social workers.

“We’ve never respected this industry the way that it deserves to be respected, where we’ve got the lives of children on the line,” Casel said.

Casel says the pandemic and high levels of job resignations have hit the child welfare system especially hard, while standards have remained strict at a state level.

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“We need good, tactical decision makers who are empowered, well-trained and ready to make decisions for kids,” Casel said. “And our state has never been willing to make a commitment to that. We’ve made a commitment to straining resources and adding complexity, and until we pivot that into one that really focuses on children and the workforce who helps them, I fear we will continue to struggle. We can do better than we’re doing.”

Casel says Embrace is getting just 1% of that $150 million in new money because it has fewer children in foster homes than other lead agencies, but argues that’s a credit to the work being done to help biological families. He says that work will become more difficult if he can’t continue to pay competitively, as that new money could help recruit strong staff members.

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“I don’t know how we’re going to make that work. We have to have the resources to keep up with what is now going to be an infusion, and (an) enormous amount of money going to other foster care systems, and I would never want to take from anyone else; they need that money as well. But we’ve been left out, and it scares me,” Casel said.

Casel says the agency is continuing conversations with state leaders about the funding formula to ensure the distribution is equitable for all agencies. The budget has not been signed by the governor.

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.