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By Bill Frye, Guest Columnist Orlando Sentinel, March 7, 2018 - When a young man decides to go on a rampage and kill as many students as he can, something has gone dreadfully wrong. The horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has generated intense debate over the most effective ways to prevent future acts of senseless violence in our schools and communities.
Much of what we’re hearing now is about gun control, law-enforcement procedures and mental-health programs. While these topics should be debated, there are also serious concerns that our child-welfare systems in Florida and throughout the nation are struggling to meet the needs of troubled youth, making it harder to access the resources and care that many children desperately need. The latest move by Congress, for example, will make the system more complicated and less effective when it comes to serving at-risk girls and boys.
In February, in a last-minute deal to fund the government, the U.S. House passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (House Resolution 5456), which will become law Oct. 1, 2019. Its implications are significant for a state like ours, where nearly 24,000 kids entered the system last year, either with a relative caregiver or a foster home. HR 5456 is intended to keep family units intact, giving states federal dollars to provide support services to families who are under investigation for neglect or abuse and are potentially facing the removal of their child.
The idea is that if parents can get the help they need, such as substance abuse treatment or mental-health counseling, fewer children will need to enter foster care. The bill is clear, however, that in situations where the child is in danger and a suitable family member isn’t available to provide care, the use of a foster home is appropriate. While these provisions make sense, HR. 5456 veers off track by limiting the options for children in foster-care settings.
The bill changes the landscape by removing traditional group homes as a placement option, allowing states to use federal funds for placing kids in foster homes or in qualified residential-treatment programs. Group homes like ours, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, that receive the majority of funding through private contributions, will continue to serve children even if the federal monies and state placements are eliminated. Many children in our programs are voluntarily placed by their parents or guardians.
However, our homes have been part of Florida’s foster-care system for nearly 50 years, a system that has struggled to keep up with the demand of children needing a place to call home. In a recent incident, caseworkers in Tampa had children sleeping in parked cars at a Wawa gas station, waiting to find a suitable place to go. The Department of Children and Families has been named in a class-action lawsuit primarily due to a shortage of foster homes in the southern region of the state.
If Florida can no longer place children in residential group homes because federal funding has been pulled, then what happens to the teen boy or girl whose life is similar to countless others we have helped over the past 60 years? What happens to the young person who has bounced from foster home to foster home but finds stability and success after coming to live at one of our cottage homes?
We are especially concerned about sibling groups. Homes like ours, Boys Town, Florida United Methodist Children’s Homes and St. Augustine Youth Services offer a way for brothers and sisters to stay together while taking care of other youth who need more care than they could receive in the average foster home but don’t belong in a highly restrictive treatment program. Under the Family First Prevention Services Act, these youth will have fewer places to go.
Fortunately, most kids in our child-welfare system will never do something like the Parkland shooting. But that doesn’t mean our system is where it should be. If anything, this is a reminder that caring for at-risk and troubled children should be an all-hands-on-deck approach. We need more qualified foster parents. We need to stop cutting Medicaid, which provides counseling and mental-health services for children. We need Congress to take a second look at HR 5456 to ensure we’re not removing a successful part of our system and calling it progress.
Bill Frye is the president of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a residential group care program with four campuses for boys and girls. The Youth Ranches has operated in Florida since 1957.
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BOYS RANCH, Fla., February 22, 2018 - The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches today announced it has achieved national accreditation through the New York-based Council on Accreditation (COA). As part of the accreditation process, COA evaluated all aspects of the Youth Ranches programs, services, management and administration.
"Maintaining our accreditation status is a high priority for our organization," said Bill Frye, president of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, which was first accredited in 1989. "We serve thousands of children and families throughout Florida, and being accredited is part of our commitment to the highest standards of quality and care in all our programs."
Organizations pursue accreditation to demonstrate the implementation of best practice standards in the field of human services. To achieve COA accreditation, the Youth Ranches provided written evidence of compliance with the COA standards, followed by peer reviews and a series of on-site interviews with staff, board members and clients. COA accreditation is an objective, independent, and reliable validation of an agency's performance.
Founded in 1977, COA is an independent, not-for-profit accreditor of the full continuum of community-based behavioral health care and social service organizations in the United States and Canada. Over 2,000 organizations — voluntary, public, and proprietary; local and statewide; large and small — have either successfully achieved COA accreditation or are currently engaged in the process. Presently, COA has a total of 47 service standards that are applicable to over 125 different types of programs. To learn more about COA, please visit COAnet.org.
About the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches
The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches is dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk children through its four residential child-care campuses (Live Oak, Bartow, Safety Harbor and Bradenton), youth leadership and summer camping programs. Founded in 1957 by the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Youth Ranches has served more than 152,000 children and families.
The mission of the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches is to prevent juvenile delinquency and develop lawful, productive citizens. Voluntary contributions are the primary source of funding, especially gifts made through special bequests in wills and trusts. The Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, Inc. is nationally accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children, Inc. and the American Camp Association. For more information, visit youthranches.org.
Chad McLeod, APR
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Making a postive impact Alexis uses her career to give back.
From a young age, Alexis always knew that she wanted to be a teacher. It wasn’t until the Youth Ranches turned her life around that she understood why.
Alexis came to the Youth Ranch at Safety Harbor in 2010. Her mother had remarried and Alexis and her stepfather never saw eye to eye, which had caused a lot of family problems. The Youth Ranches seemed like her last resort, but what Alexis really found was the support to grow as a person and follow her dreams.
“Ever since I was younger, I’ve always sort of known that I wanted to be a teacher,” Alexis said of her blossoming career. “My time at the Youth Ranches helped me to solidify that decision.” She now teaches the fifth grade in central Florida and sees a lot of herself in her students. “I teach in an area with a lot of lower-income families and a lot of kids who don’t have the best lives at home,” Alexis said. “Being at the Youth Ranch taught me how important it is for children to have good role models. A lot of them don’t have good family support, so I’m their cheerleader. That’s the main reason I do what I do.”
Alexis confesses there were times at the Ranch when she didn’t understand the point or purpose of the skills and lessons being taught in the cottage. “As a teenager, I never understood why it was so important that we all had to gather together at night for daily skill lessons, or even the cottage parents asking each child in the cottage how their day was,” she said with a laugh. “I get it now. I can’t tell you how many times in my daily life as an adult I have used those lessons we were taught by Mom and Pop. I never realized how much that helped me develop my social skills and interactions, which are now a key part of my job.”
She is quick to add that it wasn’t only the support and skills she received from the Youth Ranches that shaped her life; she got the chance to follow her dreams and she hasn’t slowed down. “I was so fortunate to be a part of the Youth Ranches Scholarship Program. Without that, I doubt I would have even been able to go to college at all, let alone have so many options available to me.” Alexis received her bachelor’s degree from Florida Southern and is now planning to continue her education and pursue her master’s degree in educational leadership so one day, she will be able to work in school administration. “I want to make a difference,” Alexis said. “As my long-term goal, I see myself as vice principal of a school.”
For Alexis, above and beyond everything the Youth Ranches has given her and taught her, what it really gave her was a family. “The Youth Ranch, that’s my family,” she said with pride. “They are as much of a family as you can be without being related. When I get in a tough spot or just need someone to talk to, I know they are there. Still to this day, I have them to help guide me. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today without the Youth Ranches.”
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Paving the way for great things Angel sets his sights on a bright future.
Beyond being excited about graduation, like any other young man his age, this senior at the Boys Ranch in Live Oak is paving the way for amazing things in his future. It is hard not to be just as excited about that as he is.
Not only will Angel be graduating from high school in May — a few short weeks after he walks the stage and collects his high school diploma, he will be taking a written exam and performing a skills assessment to obtain his certification as a nursing assistant. For Angel, earning his Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) status is just the first step to reaching his dreams of being a sports medicine doctor.
Angel’s past could not have been more different from the future he has before him. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he divided his time between his mother and father. He would spend time in Puerto Rico with his mother and then come to Florida to be with his father. After his mother passed away, Angel came to live permanently in Florida and trouble began to brew. When he was in the ninth grade, this came to its boiling point and resulted in a conversation with a judge. This compassionate man directed Angel's family to the Boys Ranch.
When you speak to Angel now, it’s hard to believe he was ever anything other than an intelligent, respectful and charismatic teenager, but he credits much of that to what he learned at the Boys Ranch. “It’s hard to explain,” Angel said, “but the Boys Ranch has taught me to be an overall better person. Every part of me, everything they do, adds up. Every piece of it goes into making me better. From teaching me how to be respectful and earn respect from others to teaching me about time management, I’m a better person because of it.”
After three and a half years at the Boys Ranch, Angel is preparing for a new journey. He excitedly shared that he had just received confirmation that he had been accepted into the Youth Ranches Scholarship Program, which will help him pay for college and living expenses after he leaves the Ranch.
The scholarship program is not a free ride for our youth. Angel is ready to take the next step in learning to juggle the real world challenges of maintaining his grades while working and becoming a productive adult. “In the fall, I will be starting at Santa Fe College and from there, I will transfer to the University of Florida,” he said.
Angel, who played football for the Suwannee County Bulldogs, hopes to one day work for a large sports organization. His dream is an opportunity to work with the NFL or Major League Baseball, combining his love of sports and the medical field.
Angel is off to a great start! In preparation for his CNA license, he has learned a lot about nutrition, taking vital signs, patient care and administering medications. This background has provided him with a wealth of knowledge and a solid foundation to continue his education in medicine. Angel will gladly tell you that he owes it all to the Youth Ranches, “It is home.”
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If you had told Catherine Koclanes that one day she would become a businesswoman working in Chicago, it’s unlikely she would have believed you. Born into a family of six children, she tried to run away from home when she was 14.
That’s when Catherine found out about the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. She was intrigued by the program, especially when she learned the Youth Ranches offered college scholarships. She dreamed of going to college one day, but with little support at home, she didn’t see a path to making that happen.
When Catherine got to the Youth Ranch in Safety Harbor in 2005, she discovered a much different environment than her home life. As she describes it, there were rules. There was structure, with regular chores and daily homework after school. It wasn’t always easy.
“It was definitely really difficult at first,” Catherine said. “But I loved it. The ranch’s structure, having a mom and pop with other kids, it seemed more like a home.”
Day by day, Catherine’s life started to change. She brought her GPA up to a 3.8, got a part-time job at Einstein Bagels and began to love school. She formed an inseparable bond with her cottage mom and dad, Mr. Ron and Mrs. Linda, who hosted a going-away party for her this year before she moved to Chicago.
“I was blessed to have amazing cottage parents,” she said. “They’ve always been there for me. They raised me through the toughest times. When I get married, Mr. Ron will walk me down the aisle."
After high school, Catherine attended Stetson University on a full scholarship from the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches Education Foundation. She graduated in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. Although several years had passed since her time in Safety Harbor, the Youth Ranches continued to play a big role in her life. She credits one of her mentors, Youth Ranches President Bill Frye, with guiding her through the college years, describing him as a “huge support.”
“I was blessed to watch over the years as a little shy, reserved young girl blossomed into a young lady full of ambition and self-confidence,” said Youth Ranches President Bill Frye. “I am so proud of Cathy as she overcame so much, and while she struggled at times, she never became cynical. I can also say that she brings joy to those who have the opportunity to spend even a few minutes in conversation with her.”
Today, Catherine lives in Chicago and works as a commercial insurance broker for Founders Professional, a national wholesale insurance brokerage.
When she reflects back on her time at the Youth Ranch, she says there are so many lessons she learned that helped her get where she is now. She encourages young women in the program today to stick with it, even when times are hard.
“You can go places that you’d never be able to go without the ranch,” she said. “I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. The Youth Ranches gave me the mindset that I can do anything.”