heart-gallery_antionette_web.jpgMIAMI — Despite its age, or perhaps because of it, the Freedom Tower continues to make visitors fall in love with its awe-inspiring, architectural beauty.

Child welfare officials are hoping that a photo exhibit of children in foster care will have a similar effect on potential adoptive parents.
The Children’s Trust Miami Heart Gallery exhibit is on display at the historic landmark in downtown Miami. The official kickoff was on Friday, June 12.

But a day before the kickoff, several of the children featured in the giant photos were on hand to talk to the media about their desire for a permanent family.

Sponsored by The Children’s Trust, the traveling exhibit began in 2008 and has resulted in 32 children being adopted or placed with families interested in making their relationship legal.

This year’s exhibit of 43 photos, comprising sibling groups and individual children, was taken at scenic locales throughout Miami-Dade, allowing the pictures to convey visually what is often difficult to articulate. 

Award-winning Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste was one of more than 30 acclaimed photographers who snapped away pro bono.  Juste was also in attendance on Thursday night, reconnecting with Cameron, the subject of one of his two photos.  Juste said the experience was gratifying and that what he and his colleagues received greatly exceeded what they gave.

‘These kids are wonderful. If I had the opportunity, I would adopt them.”

Cameron chimed in, “He’s my best friend ever.”

The photo of 13 year-old Ivan was of his profile, his big brown eyes cast downward.  Ivan agreed to attend the event and speak to reporters, but candidly said in an interview that he would prefer being returned to his mother than being adopted. Living with his 13- year-old girlfriend, he said, is another option.

Antoinette was eager to be interviewed.  Revealing parenting styles she may have already experienced, she told the South Florida Times that she wants a family who won’t yell at her.

“I want a family that won’t make me touch my toes and look at the wall. I want a family who loves me and dreams of me every night,” said the 11-year-old second grader who acknowledged that she started school “real, real late.”

With a personality far larger than her tiny frame, the little girl with big brown eyes that she said are like her mother’s sensed that this interview was her chance to really shine, to really convince a family to make her their own. In addition to speaking freely about how she and her 10 siblings came into the system, Antoinette also demonstrated her vocal talents by belting out a Keyshia Cole tune.

Sonia Kemp Donald is Antoinette’s caseworker at the Center for Family and Child Enrichment, a 30-year-old Miami Gardens agency that provides a multitude of services, including foster care and adoption. It is one of several organizations that contracts with Our Kids, Miami-Dade’s lead agency in charge of the area’s child welfare services.

“It’s good exposure for the children as far as awareness for the public,” Donald said of the event that has resulted in three children from her caseload being adopted.

A caseworker – who chose not to provide her name – was less impressed with the exhibit. Referring to the event as “exploitation,” the caseworker said many foster children worry about the stigma attached to being in the system; and being featured in the exhibit and the resulting media exposure places them at risk of being “outed” to classmates or teachers who may be unaware of their foster care status. 

Jacqui Colyer, regional director for the Florida Department of Children and Families’ southern region, said she is pleased with the images and that she is hopeful the roughly 50-percent adoption rate from last year’s exhibit will be increased to 75 or 80 percent this year.

Colyer said she is also enlisting the support of the black church in an effort to expedite the adoption of children in foster care. She has visited four churches so far, and has been invited to return to each one.

“And the good thing is that the minister’s wives have taken it on as their project, and so they are helping me to identify couples or individuals within the church who would be good parents,” she said.

The social services veteran with more than 25 years of experience said she is thrilled with the approach the churches are considering.

“The church has agreed to work with whoever is selected to become an adoptive parent to actually help them to raise that child,’’ she said. “So we will truly go back to the concept that it takes a church, it takes a village, it takes a whole lot of folks to raise a child.”


Photo by Khary Bruyning. “I want a family who loves me and dreams of me every night,” said Antoinette, above, who is available for adoption and is featured in The Children’s Trust Miami Heart Gallery.

ON THE NET: www.miamiheartgallery.org