weir-family-heart-gallery_web.jpgMIAMI GARDENS — Some of the more than 200 foster children who are eligible for adoption in Miami-Dade County are getting a very visual boost.

As a part of The Children’s Trust Miami Heart Gallery – a traveling exhibit of more than 70 larger-than-life photos of the youth taken by some of the country’s best photographers – the children’s images are front and center for potential adoptive parents.

The exhibit is currently on display at the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens, where it will remain until May 14.  The gallery partnered with the city of Miami Gardens to present the exhibit, which kicked off on April 6 with a ceremony headlined by Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson, other elected officials and Modesto Abety, the CEO of the Children’s Trust.

The library represented the eighth stop since the exhibit hit the road last year.  Its next stop is the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.

The exhibit is a partnership between The Children’s Trust and Our Kids, the private agency responsible for foster care and adoption in Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.  In addition to the display, North Dade Regional Library has on display several books about the adoption process that are placed near the exhibit.

Considering the complex, often controversial foster-care system, the exhibit seeks to put the kids’ best faces forward. 
Recent news about seven year-old Gabriel Myers’ suicide has thrust the state’s foster care system into the news again – for all the wrong reasons.  The boy apparently killed himself after arguing with the 19-year-old son of his foster parents.

The system is working toward bright futures for the children featured in the exhibit.

Visitors to the library can learn about Margret Lubin, 16, and her 15-year old brother, Christian Augustine.

The attractive siblings “do almost everything together, even play football,” according to the flyers that people interested in learning more about the teens can take with them. Margret wants to become a pediatrician, while her brother is set on becoming a professional football player and CIA agent.

The Center for Family and Child Enrichment is a 30-year-old agency in Miami Gardens. It offers a large variety of services to children in the foster care system, and has had several foster children featured in the exhibit since its launch last summer.

Yves Francois is the adoptions supervisor for CFCE. Francois said the Heart Gallery has been very helpful to the agency’s efforts at finding permanent homes for its foster children.

“Two children have been adopted and two children are awaiting adoptions finalization, all as a result of the Heart Gallery,” he said.

Francois also said the agency is in the process of trying to place three other children with adoptive families, and has identified several other potential adoptive parents who came forward after seeing children in the exhibit.

According to the state of Florida, more than 1,500 foster children have had the ties to their birth parents severed, freeing them for adoption.  Most of these children have been removed from their biological parents for a variety of reasons that legally constitute abuse or neglect – including serious drug addictions by the parents, physical or sexual abuse experienced by the children, or inadequate supervision that places children in harm’s way.

On average, 41 percent of these children remain on adoption waiting lists for two years, 22 percent for up to three years, and 37 percent wait more than three years.

The Heart Gallery is apparently making a difference in those statistics. Since its launch in June 2008, half of the children in the exhibit have been matched with parents and are now in various stages of adoption.

The state of the economy may also be a factor in the foster care system’s adoption efforts. As private adoptions become more cost prohibitive, (some can cost as much as $20,000) increasing numbers of parents are turning to the foster care system for a low-cost way to expand their families.

Adopting from the foster-care system is extremely affordable. The state reimburses up to $1,000 for attorney’s fees and provides a host of benefits post adoption. In addition to saving on the adoption costs, parents save on their adoptive child’s college or vocational expenses as well. As long as their child attends a public college, university or vocational school in the state, they are eligible for a tuition waiver. Medical expenses are also covered up to age 18 (21 for youth enrolled in the Road to Independence program).

The more-difficult-to-adopt, older set also comes with benefits. For children 16 or older who attend college, a stipend from the state’s Road to Independence program helps to offset living expenses. The Road to Independence program provides training and support to teens to assist them in learning to live independently.

Ten year-old Stacey Lewis isn’t sure what he wants to be when he grows up. What he is sure of is the kind of family he wants, he said: Two parents with siblings with everybody respecting each other.

While his info card pegs him as an avid reader, his recorded comments offer a more candid statement: “Sometimes I like to read.”

When asked what he wants from a prospective family, Stacey replied, “Respect me as I respect them.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the adoption process should call the Children’s Trust Helpline at 211.

Photo by Michael R. Malone/The Children's Trust. Samantha Weir, 17, her mother, Yvonne Weir, and brother, Clifford, 6, were interested in knowing more about Miami Heart Gallery children.