Embrace Families Changes the Face of Foster Care
Twenty years ago, Glen Casel was making the rounds at a family visitation center in Central Florida. He had been working in child welfare for years. As he stood in the lobby, a young mother walked in holding her 2-year-old son by the hand. Then she let go, turned around and walked away. After a moment of shock, everyone jumped up. One of the social workers scooped up the child and handed him to Casel.
“He started to cry like he understood what was happening,” Casel recalls. “At the time, my daughter was the same age. I thought, ‘What if this was my daughter? What if she didn’t have me? What would her life be like?’”
Today, Casel is the president and CEO of Embrace Families of Central Florida, a nonprofit that provides foster care and other services to child victims of abuse and neglect. His mission is to ensure Florida’s foster children receive the care and opportunities they need — and to change the way they’re perceived.
“Our society paints foster kids as if they’ve done something wrong,” he says. “They haven’t. They were born to families who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them, and that’s not their fault. All kids have a right to a childhood, and we can’t strip those opportunities away from them.”
In the late 1990s, Florida’s social workers and child advocates struggled to keep up with a government-run foster care system. Casel, who worked for the Department of Children and Families at the time, described the experience as “schizophrenic.”
“Our goals would swing with political intentions,” he recalls. “Should we keep kids in safe custody or send them home? Keep families together or separate them? Whenever elections rolled around, we’d change direction. Over 50 years, that creates a really dysfunctional system.”
Over time, a concept known as Community Based Care, or CBC, became an increasingly popular alternative. If the state outsourced foster care — child placement, medical care, housing and other daily needs — to local nonprofits, it would create a flexible, grassroots system that was insulated from politics. When Jeb Bush was elected governor in 1998, he promised to take the CBC model statewide.
The idea appealed to Casel. He left his job with the state to join the nonprofit Children’s Home Society, where he helped found nine of the original 15 CBC agencies across Florida. He agreed to take a leadership role at the ninth agency, which is now Embrace Families.
With the new model came a new mission: Keep children out of foster care. “Children should not be in foster care,” Casel says. “It’s as simple as that. Foster care is purgatory, and you don’t save children by bringing them in. If a child’s home isn’t safe, and we can’t make it safe, we want to get that child into a new adoptive home as soon as we can.”
Embrace Families has made rapid progress toward that mission. Since its founding, it has reduced the number of children in foster care and group care by 90% and 62% respectively. In 2004, 300 children whose parents’ rights had been terminated — but who weren’t slated for adoption — were “waiting for a home.” Now there are about 30.
“But if you think about our 30 kids waiting to be adopted, what difference have we made for them?” Casel says. “Until we find a path for every one of our kids, there’s more to do.”
Expanding the Toolbox
To provide for about 3,000 children across three counties, Embrace Families manages a diverse network of providers throughout Central Florida. Balancing that network is a perennial challenge.
“Effectively, we’re the parents. It’s our job to get our kids what they need — from tennis shoes to open-heart surgery,” Casel says. “That’s a longstanding problem for foster care, because there’s never enough resources or influence to meet those needs. That’s why organizations fail.”
Embrace Families is funded by traditional nonprofit channels like grants and fundraisers, but diversification has always been a strategic objective. Currently, non-state funding represents 30% of the agency’s revenue. To reach its goal of 50% non-state funding, Casel and his team are banking on social entrepreneurship.
“We’re experts in what we do, which is foster care, and we can use that expertise to help other organizations solve problems,” he says. “We do that every day. It’s just a matter of doing it in for-profit ways.”
Technology is a good example, he says. “Foster care groups are restricted to government-approved technology systems, so it takes an expert to understand and work around those restrictions. We can do that better than a standard IT company.”
Through entrepreneurship, the agency reaps more than financial benefits. Recently, it formed a partnership with Sunshine Health, a Medicaid managed care organization, to provide a care plan for foster children. In Florida, a $29 billion industry is built around the delivery of Medicaid services, and foster care groups are key consumers.
“Everywhere else in the country, foster care systems have no say in health care — which, candidly, is absurd,” Casel says. “With this project, we’re afforded more resources and more flexibility, and we have more influence over the care we give our kids.”
Embrace Families has also found innovative ways to work with local businesses to help children. From volunteer drives to hosting fundraisers, there are plenty of ways Central Florida companies give back. Reed Nissan donated vehicles to the Cars for Kids program, which helps foster children obtain reliable transportation. Several dozen local companies, including 15 Lightyears, are working with Embrace Families to establish summer apprentice programs. Focused on skilled trades and STEM jobs, these will allow teenagers in foster care to earn work experience and, at the end of the four weeks, the possibility of a job offer.
“When our community is better, all of our businesses are better,” Casel says. “Social change can be a part of any venture, and it’s often a win-win. We celebrate that.”
Moving forward, Casel and his team will continue to pursue business opportunities that advance Embrace Families’ mission for child welfare. “I think we’ve barely gotten started,” he says. “The problems will get harder to solve, but we’ll still solve them. Until we’ve found an answer for everyone, our work isn’t done.” ■