QPI Mini Conference

On June 26th, the first QPI Mini Conference was held in Lakeland, FL at Polk State College.  Attendees, including case managers, protective investigators, Guardian Ad Litems, foster parents, children's legal services and many more were invited to learn about the Quality Parenting Initiative and the "re-branding" of the foster care system at these two mini-sessions.  Each conference culminated in an awards ceremony.  Below are each session's award winners!

Morning Session Award Winners

DCF - Protective Investigations

Victoria Gamez, Protective Investigator

Victoria has been a DCF Child Protective Investigator for three years and was previously a lead Case Manager for three years as an Adoption Specialist. Victoria undeniably demonstrates the qualities aligned with the QPI brand in working alongside our foster parents to ensure barriers are resolved and children are able to receive the support they need. Victoria always goes above and beyond the role of a CPI and recently assisted a foster family in obtaining baby formula for a new sibling placement until WIC could be established. Victoria also went back out to the home and assisted the foster family in strapping in age specific car seats in their vehicle as they weren't familiar with these particular car seats. Although this sibling group was a change in pace for these caregivers they were able to stay together and there was no disruption of placement for these children. These acts are not uncommon for Victoria as she works very closely with Heartland for Children and recently reached out to a local daycare Director to arrange child care for a relative placement who's home and daycare location crossed county lines. She not only assisted the relatives, but worked with ELC so the child could remain in the current daycare even across county lines. Victoria is always willing to give an extra hand to anyone and has a positive attitude at all times!

Case Managers

Bethany Alexander, Children’s Home Society

Bethany Alexander represents the spirit and intent of partnership and support in working with our foster families in our community. 

She is a “champion” case manager within our circuit.  She is responsive to the children’s needs and supportive to our families who are caring for them.  She has an excellent relationship with the foster families as well as the children.  She is available to the families when they need help.  Ms. Alexander cares about the families and goes the extra mile for them.  A biological mother was to have unsupervised visitation with her children on Thanksgiving; however, when the court order did not go through, Ms. Alexander took the children to see their mother on the holiday so the family could spend Thanksgiving Day together. 

Foster Care

John and Sarah Dumas, Foster Parents (accepting on their behalf, HFC Relicensing Specialist Amanda Birge)

Sarah and John Dumas are foster parents that came to us through one of our 111 Project events. John is the Pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Avon Park.  They were licensed in October of 2013 and received their first and only placement within a week of being licensed. When they were licensed they had four biological sons of their own and wanted to be licensed for one girl.  They ultimately accepted the placement of two beautiful sisters that had experienced trauma and immediately said yes to stabilizing both.  They initiated contact with the biological mother and have co-parented with her during the entire time the girls have been placed in their home, doing such things as transporting to all visitations, bringing the mother to their own home, meeting the extended family and providing support and encouragement to the mother.  They recently gave birth to their FIFTH child, a beautiful little girl, and are absolutely committed to stabilizing their foster daughters until such a time that they can reach permanency. John and Sarah also serve as Foster Parent Mentors to new foster parents that have just become licensed.

Business/Organization Based Champions

Bartow Rotary Club – Shawn Jiles

The Bartow Rotary Club has been a wonderful resource in our community, opening their hearts to helping children in need through Heartland for Children.  The Bartow Rotary Club has not only welcomed Heartland for Children staff countless times to speak to their members about the need for quality foster and adoptive homes; but also thinks to include Heartland for Children during any special community events.  The Bartow Rotary Club has also helped Heartland for Children to find forever homes for children through sponsoring and coordinating the Forever Family Adoption Picnic each Spring for the past three years.  Thanks to the Bartow Rotary Clubs help, at least 20 children have found their forever family through attending the Forever Family Adoption Picnic.  We are excited to be able to recognize the Bartow Rotary Club today for their support of Heartland for Children and for their partnership in helping to find forever adoptive homes for our children and teens available for adoption. 

Faith-Based Champions

HighPoint Church – Pastor Jack Hilligoss, Pastor Bonnie Barker (accepting on their behalf, Kelly Polhamus and Mike Willis)

HighPoint Church strives to be a community church and not just a church in the community.  A few words that describe what HighPoint church is about are service to others, life changing teaching, and family & friends. They believe that it is their responsibility to make Lake Wales a better place.  Feeding the homeless, serving at the local schools, and sponsoring sports teams are just a few of the ways that they give back to their local community. Through their partnership with Heartland for Children’s faith based initiative, HighPoint Church has been instrumental in impacting the lives of children and families throughout Circuit 10 - Polk, Highland and Hardee Counties. HighPoint Church, under that leadership of Pastor Jack Hilligoss, have  hosted a 111Project recruitment event, an adoption matching event, provided opportunities for their church members to become educated and involved in prevention, foster care and adoptive care programs, support foster and adoptive families and have begun a foster friends ministry within their church.  We are grateful for the partnership with HighPoint church, for their answering the call to faith community to be the difference in the life of a child and the impact they have chosen to make in behalf of the lives of children and families through prevention, foster care and adoption. 

Afternoon Session Award Winners

DCF - Protective Investigations

Nikki Ernst, Protective Investigator

Nikki Ernst can be described in two words by her peers and her leadership -a "work horse".  Nikki is a Senior Child Protective Investigator in the Lakeland area and often accepts investigations that involve our children already in substitute care. Nikki takes great care in approaching and addressing these scenarios with a kind heart and an open mind. Although these situations can often times be very taxing on all parties involved, Nikki is able to ask the hard questions, provide the necessary guidance and wrap the family with the services and supports needed to ensure safe children and loving homes! Nikki is often sought out by other investigators for her expertise and knowledge. She is true advocate for our foster parents and to our entire system of care.

Case Managers

Lakesha Brathwaite, Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services (accepting on her behalf, Carmen Martinez)

Lakesha Brathwaite is a “champion” case manager within our circuit.  She demonstrates the spirit and intent of working in partnership and providing support to our foster families.  Ms. Brathwaite is very responsive to our families and is there for them when they need her.  She is a caring and respectful individual who listens to our families and helps them to resolve and come up with solutions.  Ms. Brathwaite genuinely cares about the foster families and will do all she can to help families provide quality care to each child.

Foster Care

Charles and Tonya Clayton, Foster Parents (accepting on their behalf, HFC Relicensing Specialist Cynthia Lanning)

Charles and Tonya Clayton have been licensed foster parents with Heartland for Children since June of 2013.  They have two grown children whom they adopted, as well as two biological sons of their own, ages 13 and 15.  They were licensed in June of 2013 for three children and their first placement was a sibling group of three.  They immediately embraced co-parenting, taking the mother to church, brought her to their own home and even brought the children to her when she had no transportation for her visit.  Tonya even took it upon herself to help the mother find a job and become stable, in an effort to move toward reunification.  They were a driving force behind this mother’s successful reunification in September of 2014. The Clayton’s continue to be involved with the children and their parents by taking them bowling, to the park and other family activities.  They are now stabilizing 4 children in their home, 3 of these siblings.

Business/Organization Based Champions

Polk County Christmas Angels – Sandy Toledo

Polk County Christmas Angels is a charity like no other. Since 1969, Christmas Angels has been providing gifts to children in the foster care system making the holidays bright and allowing these children to feel extra special. Christmas Angels works with many long time donors in the community to fulfill the specific holiday wishes for hundreds of children each year. Not only do these children get their exact wishes, often including bicycles and other treasured items, but they also come beautifully wrapped. The Christmas Angels volunteers spend countless hours each year making sure that the most needy of children have a spectacular holiday season. We sincerely thank Sandy Toledo, who has been a part of this project since the beginning and all of her superb volunteers and donors for their generosity and commitment to children in the foster care system.

Faith-Based Champions

ECHO Ministries Florida – Joshua and Sabrina Pierce, Lynanna Marvin, Jennifer Stirk

ECHO Ministries Florida started out of the hearts and compassion of a group of individuals who had decided to make a difference in the lives of foster children. They began by having a diaper drive and collected thousands of diapers that they donated to Heartland for Children. This then grew into receiving gently used clothing and children's items that they stored in their garages and handed out monthly at a local foster parent support group meeting. They eventually moved into space provided by their church which then led them to opening a donation center, the first ECHO location, at Kville Assembly of God. ECHO seeks to meet the physical and spiritual needs of foster, adoptive, relative and non-relative families through their multiple donation centers and caregiver outreaches. From that first act of compassion and giving, ECHO has grown to become ECHO Ministries Florida which now has four locations serving Polk, Highlands, and Hardee. We are grateful for the tireless efforts and support that this ministry provides to the children and families throughout Circuit 10.


2015 QPI Florida Mini Conference Planning Team Members

We'd like to thank the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Council on Accreditation and Polk State College for partnering with us for this event.