COCONUT GROVE, FLA. — Kevin Cumberbatch, a former employee at Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) in Fort Lauderdale, felt frustrated by the state's foster-care system. He saw kids bouncing from home to home, he says, often not finding a permanent situation.
So he was skeptical about a coworker's description of a program in which young wards of the state - abused, neglected, and abandoned by their biological parents - could truly come home to stable family living.
Mr. Cumberbatch decided to see the SOS Children's Village of Florida for himself. What he found was enough to make him quit his old job and move to a community devoted to giving at-risk children a new and stable family environment.
Just over a year ago, Cumberbatch became the instant father of seven children, joining a neighborhood of new houses and five community buildings where 45 children have finally started to put down roots.
"I feel totally fulfilled - more than you can ever know," says Cumberbatch, who is the only male parent in the organization, although not because of any village restrictions.
Estella Moriarty, a circuit court judge in Fort Lauderdale, helped start the Florida village. "She deals with children's issues and felt there was a need," says development coordinator Maria Konicki.
SOS Children's Village recruits its foster parents through newspaper ads, but many of them come through word of mouth, like Donna Forbes. A divorced mother with an 18-year-old son, she added three young sisters and a brother to the family when she moved to the village four years ago.
Like the other parents in the neighborhood, Ms. Forbes is single. The organization's philosophy is that potential divorce or departure because of a spouse's career would cause further disruptions in the already fragmented lives of the children. "As young as the children are, they have some baggage from not being attached to a parent early on," Forbes says. Most of the village's children are part of sibling groups that have been reunited after being split apart in earlier foster homes.
All prospective SOS parents have an HRS background check and take a six-week training course that includes behavior modification, nutrition, and recognizing signs of abuse. Social workers meet with the families each week, and the parents hold monthly group meetings.
Parents do not hold outside jobs. They are compensated for their commitment of 10 to 15 years with about $25,000 per year, room and board, and $50 to $100 a day for the children's food; Medicaid covers the children's health care. Parent assistants provide support and get the same training as parents, but live outside the village.
Ninety percent of the $30,000 per- child annual budget comes from the donation-supported national and international SOS organizations, supplemented by $3,000 per child from Broward County and HRS.
The Florida program may be young, but the parents have already had some successes. At first, for example, Forbes was told that her children, who were traumatized by past experiences, might be autistic. Now, however, they are communicative and are catching up to their peers in school, she says. As for Cumberbatch's sons, they have gone from distrusting him to looking on him as a loving father. "This is not a job," he says. "These are my children."