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Make Children Happy

Children’s Home Society of Florida

By Sallie W. Boyles

In 1902, Children’s Home Society of Florida (CHS) was founded as an adoption services organization. Today the nonprofit, headquartered in Winter Park, operates through fourteen divisional offices that oversee more than one hundred locations in every Florida county. Organically evolving in response to changing needs of communities and individuals, CHS is not only the oldest and largest private institution caring for women, children and families in Florida, but it also delivers a breadth of support that is downright inspiring.

Contracted and funded by the state, CHS expertly fulfills every requirement as prescribed, but the work doesn’t stop there. “We complete the need by living in the solution,” says Erica Spivey, Associate Development Director of the Emerald Coast Division, which is in Panama City. CHS is distinguished, in fact, for creating model programs, each of which provides many extras that make all the difference to those who are helped. To deliver those added yet vital advantages, the organization strongly relies on private donations and well-coordinated volunteer initiatives.

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Seeking to find her own sense of purpose through volunteerism, Spivey was President of Florida State University’s Rotaract Club before joining the Panama City Rotary Club while working in PR and real estate. Eager to get involved, she served on the board of directors that built Frank Brown Park, an adaptive recreational facility in Panama City Beach that accommodates physically challenged youngsters and teens who play sports. She later learned about Clair’s House, a CHS-run group home for teen girls, while attending a fund-raiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida. Realizing that she could make a difference little by little, she began fulfilling “wish list” items to make the girls of Clair’s House feel special. When offered her current position with CHS, Spivey, just twenty-four years old, eagerly accepted, embarking upon a mission to broaden community awareness about children in need, keeping them in the hearts and minds of supporters, politicians and everyday citizens.

The issues are complex, and to address a myriad of challenges, the Emerald Coast Division alone requires over ninety staff members and approximately fifty contract workers who facilitate seven separate but interrelated areas of service:

  • Continuing its original mission to place children in loving, forever homes, CHS facilitates private adoptions as well as incorporates a range of services, including pre- and post-adoption counseling for all parties involved.
  • Early Steps mitigates developmental delays in children by catching them early (from birth up to age three), directing families to a host of resources, and reinforcing positive parenting.
  • Clair’s House, originally a group home for children aged six to twelve, now focuses on hard-to-place teenage girls who have been removed from their homes as a result of abuse, abandonment or neglect. Nurtured and mentored, the most troubled teens rebound to become positive influences in society and on one another.
  • Dependency Case Management oversees the physical and emotional needs of children who have either been removed from home or are at risk of being removed as a result of abuse, abandonment or neglect.
  • Birth to Five Mental Health fortifies the social and emotional development of the youngest segment—infants to age five—by providing resources that strengthen the bonds between the parent or primary caregiver and child.
  • Dependency Counseling offers targeted case management services and mental health support to children ages six to seventeen by designing care plans for youngsters and connecting families to the resources they need.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling incorporates drug and alcohol evaluations, weekly education, individual and group therapy, and around-the-clock emergency screenings—all to restore and reunite families.
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Though the prominence of one program over another will vary locally based on what a particular community needs, Spivey states that CHS is always working towards one broad objective: “We strive to break the cycle of child abuse and neglect, heal trauma and pain associated with abuse and neglect, and find forever homes.”

A case, therefore, might be initiated when a school’s counseling office contacts the Florida Department of Children and Families hotline because “Johnny,” a ten-year-old boy, usually has an unkempt appearance and regularly says he forgot his lunch. The state, in turn, would assign CHS to investigate.


Child-focused and family-centered, CHS would deploy a Dependency Case Manager to investigate, peeling back the layers to identify the issues. Isolating key problem areas, the case manager would delegate responsibility to the appropriate counselor(s). “We begin by building trust, demonstrating that we are there to support the child and his family, not to tear them apart,” says Spivey. “If we find that Johnny’s mom is dealing with stress by abusing prescription drugs, we first direct her to outpatient drug treatment so that she and her son can remain in their home together.” The plan might also entail enrolling the mother in parenting classes, buying new school clothes for Johnny, and making sure the water and electricity remain turned on—whatever it takes to foster a happy, healthy, stable child and family.

To keep families intact, CHS tackles issues like domestic violence and child abuse proactively whenever possible. “Our fastest growing area is our Birth to Five Mental Health services,” says Spivey. “Through education and guidance, our goal is to forestall the behaviors that destroy relationships.”

As an example, Spivey recalls a mental health assessment she observed with a two-year-old and his mom. “The mother was so out of touch,” Spivey says, describing how she read a chapter book suitable for an older child to her toddler as he squirmed in her lap. “She didn’t know what to do.” From the evaluation, however, CHS proceeded to educate the mom, teaching her to engage her baby and develop the bonds that would compel her to nurture rather than grow frustrated and abusive.

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No matter how big the problem, CHS breaks it down, creating manageable pieces that are solved one by one. Likewise, one by one, success stories emerge.

When “Mary” entered Clair’s House at fifteen, most would say that she was utterly out of control. Today, she is an award-winning student with plans for college. She is also a role model and inspiration to her peers. Although Mary rightfully attributes her transformation to her dedicated mentor, Vicky Harless, supervisor of Clair’s House, she has benefited from the large and small contributions of many.

No effort to help is insignificant. Whether covering the cost of a birthday party for a child who has never enjoyed that rite of passage or subsidizing a substance abuse program to accommodate fifty more families, CHS counts on private funding and appreciates all levels of support.

For more information about Children’s Home Society of Florida, Erica Spivey can be reached by e-mail at  or by phone at 850-747-1520.

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Compassionate Chefs for Kids, the Emerald Coast Division’s premier annual fund-raiser, will be held on Saturday, September 25 at the Bay Point Marriott Resort in Panama City Beach. Along with live music and dancing, dozens of the area’s finest restaurants will present the Panhandle’s most delectable cuisine. Proceeds from tickets—$35 General, $75 VIP—and a silent auction will directly benefit the vital children’s services that CHS provides in Bay County and surrounding communities. For additional details, please call 850-747-5411, ext. 1520. Florida Department of Children and Families hotline—1-800-962-2873

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