From left to right: Becca Eldredge, Briahna and Ian Eldredge

Becca and Ian Eldredge started the process of adopting a child two years ago, and met Briahna, their new daughter, last November. Briahna moved in with the Eldredges near the end of January, just over a month before the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting the everyday lives of Americans, and slowing the adoption and fostering process for many in the area.

"I finally got to see them," says Briahna, 13, "and then, boom, coronavirus happened."

"We're so thankful that we're not stuck with her not being here right now," Becca says.

Other families haven't been so fortunate. Brena Slater is the chief executive officer of the Safe Children Coalition, a nonprofit that provides a range of child welfare services in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. Slater says the organization is still receiving plenty of inquiries from new potential foster families, but has seen a drop-off in already approved families accepting children into their homes because of the pandemic. The coalition currently has 268 licensed foster homes. More than 1,400 children in the coalition's three-county region have been removed from their homes; 220 children are currently eligible for adoption.

"The need is great, especially for teens and sibling groups," Slater says.

A number of factors may be causing such declines. People are trying to keep their distance from others to avoid the coronavirus and may be wary of bringing new people into their homes. Also, families with children may not feel like they have enough space to accommodate more children, because the parents are working from home and school is not in session. Job losses and other economic hardships may also be discouraging families from starting the adoption or fostering process.

The Heart Gallery of Sarasota is a nonprofit that commissions photographers to take portraits of children waiting to be adopted and then displays the images online and in public spaces to encourage families interested in adopting. The organization typically receives around 100 inquiries from potential families each month. That number has dropped to three or four per month since stay-at-home orders began to be implemented.

Heart Gallery president Matthew Straeb says the organization typically displays its photographs in places where families congregate. Those opportunities to reach families have been curtailed by the closure of many public spaces. The organization has also used Facebook and Google ads to reach families, and is shifting its efforts to reach more people online.

According to Slater, 13 families are currently going through the Safe Children Coalition's parenting training program. Before the pandemic, the training process took place in person, but now families can complete it via Zoom or over the phone. In addition to the classes, home inspections are also necessary. A typical adoption used to take between six and nine months. That process is now taking longer.

"We are now having a harder time completing home studies, keeping homes stable due to economic hardships and obtaining court hearings," says Slater.

Because of those delays and the shift to virtual learning, kids may be more at risk, says Straeb. Teachers and other school employees are often the first ones to notice signs of abuse. "That first line of defense is gone, and that's really troubling to us," Straeb says. "Every day those kids are not in a loving home, it's detrimental to them."

The nonprofit All Star Children's Foundation is close to opening its Sarasota "Campus of Hope and Healing," which will house foster families and provide treatment for abused children. The campus will include six five-bedroom cottages that can accommodate five foster children each, plus a playground, a clubhouse and more. In the middle of the pandemic, the foundation recently welcomed its first participating foster families.

Before coming to live with the Eldredges, Briahna lived in a group home and with other families. She has two siblings who currently live with another family. "It was hard being in foster care," she says.

Today, Briahna dreams of becoming an actor and singer and wants to try out for the theater program at her school. Because of the pandemic, her official adoption ceremony is scheduled to take place via Zoom on Tuesday, May 5. She calls it "fate" that she ended up with the Eldredges. "I'm so lucky to have them," she says. "They are a very understanding family, and when I first met them, I knew this would be my forever home."

"We really need more parents that will adopt foster kids," Briahna says, "because there are a lot of kids that don't get adopted and age out. I've met some older teens and they've had a hard time finding a family, because families are looking for younger kids."

Becca Eldredge tells prospective adoptive parents to be patient. "The system can take a long time, and that can be challenging," she says. But if you're interested in adopting, she says, "Go for it."

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