Somehow, despite the melodrama that comes with a sick child, a traumatized cat and no strawberries for the Neapolitan ice cream, I'd say the Diaz household did OK during a dry run as foster parents.
It was an easy gig as these things go. A 4-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were placed in our home for a week of "respite care." It gave the foster parents a week of vacation, and my wife and I the chance to see if we're cut out for this foster-parenting thing.
I don't know if we have the answer yet, but I'm confident that we held up fairly well as far as the kids were concerned. The Florida Department of Children and Families, though — that's a different matter.
The agency, bless its bureaucratic heart, can get so lost in the details. Consider: We took mandatory classes, underwent criminal-background checks, provided references from friends and family, and filled out stacks of paperwork.
Yet DCF still had a few questions before giving final approval. Only you don't deal with DCF directly. The agency has contracts with private agencies through a network called Community Based Care. They're in charge of adoptions and foster placements.
It's supposed to make the system more efficient, but here's the reality: The front-line people with the CBCs find it terribly frustrating to deal with the bureaucratic gobbledygook.
Just ask Glen Casel, executive director of Community Based Care of Seminole. He was in his car a while back when he got an e-mail with a long attachment with a series of questions about some prospective foster parents.
He couldn't open the big file on his BlackBerry, so he waited until he returned to the office. Click. It was our file.
One of the 11 questions: "Does Mr. Diaz speak English?"
Perhaps they weren't big fans of my column. Or perhaps no one had checked that stack of paperwork, which was all filled out in English.
"I'm not asking these questions," he told a DCF worker. "Issue the license or deny it. And if you deny it, we're taking you to court."
DCF blinked. Not only that, but officials agreed to a streamlined approval process that pares down the phone book-sized file of family dynamics, employment history and other information to one page — repeat, one — provided by a caseworker requesting approval for a state foster-care license. All DCF has to do is sign on the dotted line. The new system starts Saturday. Casel is proud to note that Seminole is the first county to be allowed to use the short approval form.
"You can Monday-morning quarterback this to death, which is what they've done," Casel said. "I don't want my legacy to be that I was in the system for 40years, and it still stinks. We are going to fix it."
The "system" is the catch-all excuse for breakdowns in state agencies. It's a convenient boogeyman. The system is responsible for about 21,000 foster kids whose biological parents have failed them in all sorts of different and sometimes despicable ways.
Casel has 482 kids under his watch. They need his help, and in turn, he needs people willing to step in and take them under their watch as foster parents.
"We have to stop using the word system," Casel said. "We are the system. And if it's broken, we are broken."
There are very good people at DCF, but they, too, get dragged down by the system. This is why they have to follow illogical protocol that says gays can foster but can't adopt. In comparison to that lunacy, a one-page approval system for Seminole seems like a minor victory.
Whether the issue is big or small, common sense needs to prevail.
Kids in crisis depend on it. They can become collateral damage for someone else's mistakes, leaving them scarred for life.
I hold out hope for the two we had in our home. They're loving children who have been placed with good foster parents who hope to adopt them. During our short time together, we spotted five deer outside our home Saturday morning, took a Happy Meal drive over to McDonald's and pounded playground sand out of sneakers every night before going to bed.
The kids enjoyed slobbery kisses from the dogs and petting our nervous cat.
We survived one child's 103-degree-fever scare one night, my bad stomach issues on another, and my wife's flu symptoms and fever that kept her out of work for a day. Somehow, we made it to the end of every night.
They're nice memories, making the experience one of the most rewarding weeks of our lives.
I hope that answers all the questions.
George Diaz can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5533.