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Arming and Saving Kids with Technology

By Tori Phelps

While most parents are trying to decrease their kids’ exposure to technology, Michael Shaver is determined to dramatically increase exposure for Florida’s at-risk kids. The CEO of Children’s Home Society of Florida (CHS) says technology is, in fact, the key to breaking generations of poverty, abuse, and addiction. Microsoft agrees—to the tune of $7.3 million. CHS intends to turn the company’s cutting-edge grant into nothing less than stability for foster children, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Microsoft’s YouthSpark software grant will fund Tech Success programs for at-risk children across the state. The CHS Emerald Coast Division’s initial priority is teens, according to executive director Sean Golder, with both a permanent site and a mobile site in the works. The idea is that youth aged fourteen to nineteen will use web-based learning to become familiar with Microsoft Office essentials like Excel, PowerPoint, and much more. The agency is also partnering with CareerSource Florida to give teens experience filling out job applications and building résumés.

While the rest of us take technology for granted, kids in the “system” often have little experience with computers. That’s a problem when you consider that 80 percent of job applications are only available on the web. “We need to do something to close this digital divide,” Shaver insists. “Even if they don’t own a computer, they can go to the library if they understand how to create a document, how to put it on a thumb drive, and how to download that file. It’s something totally new to these kids.”

Group of kids playing soccer

Eventually, Golder wants to expand Tech Success to include younger kids whose lack of familiarity with computers can affect standardized test scores. “These tests are now done almost exclusively online,” he explains. “Many at-risk kids are fairly transient, and they haven’t had consistent access to computers.”

Tech Success isn’t a nice perk; it’s crucial in breaking cycles of child welfare involvement. Sadly, the greatest risk factor for entering the foster care system is being born to a former ward of the state who has aged out of the system. Why? Because traditionally, there’s been nothing to help wards create a different future. CHS will continue to help kids work through the trauma that brought them into the system, but that’s just a Band-Aid without educational assistance. “If we can provide opportunities for these kids through programs like Tech Success, what we’re really doing is insulating ourselves against the likelihood that their kids come into the system,” Shaver says.

Many at-risk kids are fairly transient, and they haven’t had consistent access to computers.

CHS has found “forever” families for about forty thousand children since its founding in 1902, but its initial mission and reach have expanded tremendously. It now operates from ninety sites statewide and has more feet on the ground than any other child welfare institution in Florida. Today, the agency has three branches of effort: child welfare services, behavioral/mental health services, and early childhood services. Child welfare, which focuses on children who’ve been abused or are at risk of abuse, accounts for about 60 percent of the agency’s activities statewide. That percentage is even greater locally, Golder says. In response, the Emerald Coast Division has initiated several innovative programs.

The division is perhaps best known for Clair’s House, a group residence in Panama City for teen girls who, for multiple reasons, cannot be reunited with their families of origin or placed with foster families. What the girls experience at Clair’s House is a different kind of family—but a family nonetheless. The home is decorated with pictures of the girls’ outings and has a Brady Bunch–like space where they can do homework or just hang out. Because these girls have been affected by trauma, Clair’s House is staffed twenty-four hours a day and offers the behavioral and educational support they need. Just as importantly, it gives them a sense of normalcy. “Clair’s House is their home,” Golder says, “and the girls see it that way.”

Mother kissing a baby

Early Childhood Court is another groundbreaking local program. Launched in June, it gives parents tools to fast-track reunification with an infant or toddler who’s been removed from his or her home. This aggressive program is purely voluntary for parents, who get access to multiple services but also must agree to weekly meetings with a caseworker and monthly court appointments. The concept can be intimidating for some parents, who often are afraid of failing to meet requirements that range from keeping a job to maintaining a visitation schedule with their child. “We work a lot on providing parents every opportunity to succeed and move away from the mind-set of failure,” Golder says.

There’s a lot at stake. The effects of abuse and neglect on children from birth to three years old are typically greater than on older children, he explains, because it impacts cognitive development. So important—and impressive—is the division’s Early Childhood Court that the national organization Zero to Three has named Panama City one of five demonstration sites in the state. Eventually, data collected locally could impact practices for at-risk children around the country. 

The more kids they can help, the better. But Golder is laser-focused on the stability of children on the Emerald Coast. That’s why CHS works diligently to help families navigate the often-frustrating red tape surrounding services they need. Among the most prevalent need right now is adequate housing. While not all families are homeless, Golder says too many are living in intolerable conditions—like a family of six in a one-bedroom apartment. “It’s very difficult for us to tell the court that a situation like that is in the best interest of the children,” he explains. “So we do our best to assist them in finding better living arrangements.”

We work a lot on providing parents every opportunity to succeed and move away from the mind-set of failure

In a touristy area like Panama City, which has plenty of high-income residents, it can be hard for people to see past the beach condos and into the areas of desperate need. The good news is that CHS and its partners in child welfare have made strides in educating the community about neighbors in need. Even better, the Emerald Coast is filled with people who are eager to help.

Golder and the CHS team can use all the support they can get to ensure Tech Success lives up to its name. Some current community partners have already agreed to become involved with the program, and CHS is actively working to recruit mentors from the education and business sectors. The technology built into Tech Success makes it even easier for volunteers to say yes, with remote capabilities that allow mentors to assess students’ progress and interact with them online.

At its heart, Tech Success is another way for CHS to help kids in the child welfare system beat the odds. “The human desire to succeed, to be happy, to love, to laugh, to have a fulfilled life—that’s evenly distributed across the human race,” Shaver says. “What isn’t evenly distributed in our society is the opportunity to realize those gifts. That’s what we do: we even the odds for these kids.”

— V —

To volunteer for Tech Success or donate to Thanksgiving and/or Christmas food and toy drives, visit chsfl.org or call Lisa Kern at (850) 890-9339.

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