SARASOTA, FL – On April 5-6, approximately 425 child welfare and youth mental health experts and practitioners gathered at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota for Safe Children Coalition’s 12th Annual Conference. Attendees heard from numerous topic matter experts as well as enjoyed the opportunity to network with peers working in the field.
The event opened with “The Force of Hope” Child Welfare Celebration Breakfast, with 500 in attendance. After SCC’s president and CEO Brena Slater welcomed the guests, a handful of “Champions for Children” were recognized: SCC employee Sara Martin was honored as the Case Worker of the Year; foster parents Gena and Aaron Rowand were highlighted as the Foster Family of the Year; Manatee Community Foundation was named Partner of the Year for the Foster Care Initiative (award accepted by interim executive director Jennifer Abbott); and Care Portal: A Bridge a Life Program was honored as Collaborative Partner of the Year (award accepted by regional manager Courtney Ross). Then Slater returned to the podium to recognize longtime child welfare professional Kathleen Cowan, SCC’s vice president of community-based care, who is poised to retire in the fall.
Conference sessions covered topics including positive parenting, trauma-informed support and supervision, post-adoption services, educational achievement for children in foster care, self-esteem in the shadow of abuse, service availability for youth, labor trafficking trends and case studies in Florida, building strong relationships with children, compassion fatigue, child welfare safety planning, sexual behavioral issues in children, OCD and play therapy, the impact of adoption/fostering on biological children, and many more.
SCC’s Learning & Professional Director, Colleen Buscemi, says that her team works all year to build the conference program, looking at current issues in society that affect children and families in crisis as well as at feedback from attendees of previous conferences to learn what they feel they need.
“Safe Children Coalition is proud to be the convener of hundreds of professionals during the conference,” said Buscemi. “Each year, this event gives us a sense of community; with all of these different agencies coming together, we feel a real sense of kinship and realize the cause is bigger than just us.”
This year’s keynote speaker, Tonier Cain, gave a brief and spirited presentation to close the breakfast. Buscemi notes that Cain is not only an expert in trauma informed care but also a person who has lived experience, something organizers felt would hold great value for the attendees.
For 19 nightmarish years, Cain lived on the streets, using drugs and racking up 66 criminal convictions until – finally – treatment for her trauma offered her a way out and up. Her story points to the consequences of untreated trauma to individuals and society at large, including mental health problems, addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. Now, as an advocate and educator, she works tirelessly to raise awareness about trauma informed care around the world. She has trained providers in all 50 states and her work has been used as a model in other countries for the establishment of their trauma informed care protocols.
Cain emphasizes that “where there’s breath, there’s hope,” saying that we don’t have the right to give up on any individual. “We have to plant seeds,” she said. “People get frustrated when they don’t see immediate results. If we plant good seeds, maybe someone else will provide sunlight and water to enable that person to become who they are meant to be.”
During the brief breakfast pep talk, Cain likened the work of trauma informed care to the use of GPS: after a wrong turn, the GPS will help the user to re-route rather than “cut you off because of your mistake. If you work with someone who makes a mistake, get them back on track right away – don’t be focused on what went wrong!” She also says that working with people in crisis doesn’t just help that person – it can have a generational impact and help to break the cycle for that family.
Cain is now a successful entrepreneur with several businesses; she challenged the audience to ask themselves one question: could they look at her then and imagine her now? She encouraged everyone involved in working with children in trauma to ask themselves this question.
Lead sponsors for the conference were Sunshine Health, Suncoast Behavioral Health Center, Lutheran Services Florida, and Family Initiative. The SCC team is already at work on the 2024 conference, which will take place on April 25-26 at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
To learn more about SCC’s work, visit sccfl.org.
About Safe Children Coalition, Inc.
Safe Children Coalition, Inc. (SCC) serves as the lead agency for community-based care for Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. SCC is a collaboration between local community agencies who provide services to children and families in need. SCC is committed to protecting children, strengthening families, and building community. The core functions provided by SCC include child welfare case management, foster care, adoption, independent living, prevention, diversion, quality management, and support services. Visit sccfl.org or call 941-371-4799.