Category Archives: South Florida Region

A Call to Action

Guest post by Regina Bernadin with the International Rescue Committee of Miami. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

human traffickingClara was born in a small village in Central America. At 14, she was the oldest child in a family of eight and felt responsible for helping her parents take care of her siblings.  When her father became sick and unable to work, the family was plunged into poverty. When the opportunity came to work in the fields in Florida, Clara left her happy childhood for the long trek across the border into the United States.  Upon her arrival in Florida, she found that she would be working 14 hours a day for almost no pay, living in a cramped trailer with other workers and showering outside with a garden hose.  She was underfed, not allowed to contact her family, feared being sexually assaulted, and was beaten if she was sick and couldn’t work. She was told she could leave once she paid her smuggling debt, but making a few dollars a day, she knew she couldn’t walk away, especially since the owners also threatened her family’s life. Distraught, she just tried to make it through each day.

Florida ranks third in the number of human trafficking investigations and cases identified. Being a port of entry to the rest of the country, having such favorable weather and bountiful agricultural fields has made this region a hot bed for this type of criminal activity. This gives the state an unfavorable distinction and overshadows the good work being done at every level.

When I first began working in this field in 2005, we were just learning how to fight back. Front line responders such as emergency room workers, law enforcement agents, and victim advocates, were all coming across victims and individually trying to figure out how to help them out. Many times victims of sex trafficking were mislabeled as child prostitutes or seen as undocumented immigrants, like Clara, who were exploited because of their lack of immigration status and familiarity with the language and customs of the United States. We failed to look beneath the surface and see that they had been coerced into a life of slavery and exploitation.

Today we have better tools, more knowledge, and a better approach to combating human trafficking. Front line responders are now working together to create ways to help those they might come across in their daily work. Law enforcement agents are being trained on this issue at the police academy, child protective investigators know what indicators to look for in responding to a call, airport staff is learning how to spot the signs of human trafficking, and the school system is focusing on prevention among its youth. Communities are encouraged to call the Florida Abuse Hotline at (800) 962-2873 to report tips that could save Clara and other victims. But more can be done.

Good work is being done, and I want to encourage you to learn how you can join those throughout Florida who are working to rescue and restore victims of commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and slavery. Coalitions of interested citizens are working year-round to raise awareness in their respective communities.  Others mentor both American–born and foreign-national victims and help them develop new skills.  You can also volunteer or fundraise to help organizations who provide direct services to trafficking survivors or collect necessary goods by hosting donation drives.  But before you decide what the best way for you to help is, there is one thing you can do today.  Talk to your colleagues, loved ones, and friends about human trafficking. It will take all of us to combat trafficking, and this is the first way how.

The true joy of giving

Guest post by Bunchy Gertner.

Every year for the last 16 years, as the South Florida summer heat scorches my soul, I turn my attention to the annual task of preparing my “North Pole.” I store, wrap and distribute thousands of toys destined for all children who continue to live in the foster care system in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Each year, beginning in August, this Toy Drive becomes top banana for me! I start calling friends, family, and donors to raise money and collect presents for the thousands of foster children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.  Working with the staff and volunteers at Our Kids, the community-based care lead agency that provides foster, adoptive and related services to children in Miami and the Florida Keys, we’re able to collect, wrap and deliver thousands of presents to children throughout the holiday season!

I sometimes feel that all 3,600 foster children are mine (thank God I didn’t give birth to all of them!). I worry that they won’t receive a gift for the holidays and this thought propels me to try harder and make sure each and every child has a gift to open at holiday time.

It takes months to put together the team that greases the wheel and allows the project to take on a life of its own. Working with our sponsors, the team at Our Kids and numerous volunteers, we make sure every foster child in Miami-Dade and the Keys receives a quality, age appropriate gift in time for the holidays.

This year, there are 135 foster children who will be aging-out of foster care and who will embark on their newest and most profound challenge: learning to live on their own for the first time in their lives. The road to independence has many potholes and we are trying to pave the way. We created the Good Housekeeping gift of much needed household items that includes a comforter and sheets, 2 pillows, hand and bath towels, service for eight to include dishes, flatware and glassware.  Pots and pans were added last year and this year, a microwave oven.

Once we collect the gifts, we get to work wrapping! It takes serious manpower and even more tape to wrap more than 12,000 presents!

Bunchy_2Of course none of this would be possible without the generous contributions of friends and sponsors.  We have more than 50 supporters and sponsors who make valuable financial contributions and/or donate gifts to insure that all children in the system have something to open for the holidays!  Some of these sponsors include Florida Power & Light, the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, U.S. District Court, The Continental Group and the Village of Gulfstream Park.

As I review my list of donors and sponsors, I realize that I have become a beggar! I get down on my hands and knee and plead for contributions from everyone I meet.  I write letters, I make phone calls and ask people if they will help or if they know others who might be moved to help. I remind everyone that for some of these children, their gift from our North Pole might be the only present they will receive.

Despite 16 years of collecting toys and gifts, I remain overwhelmed with a joyful feeling, knowing that no child is left behind or forgotten. After months of collecting, stacking, sorting, wrapping, and tagging thousands of gifts that will be delivered to the foster youth, when I finally lay my head down to rest, I know that I have fulfilled my mission: no child in South Florida will go without a present this year!  And that, dear friends, is the true joy of giving!

For more information and to get involved, please contact Bunchy Gertner at:

“I can be a normal kid now”

Guest post by Denise Beeman Sasiain, foster mother to Summer, 17, who will stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood; Isabella Hope, 3, who they’ve had since birth and adopted last year; Xavier (aka X-man), 2, who they are in the process of adopting; and Daniella Joy, 1, who they’ve also had from birth and recently adopted.

Summer and Karly

Summer and Karly

Many firsts are inconsequential, but others serve as memorable stepping stones: A first day of school, a first speech or a first love. Tonight something spectacular, a first, will happen in the life of our daughter. It might be considered the norm for many, but for Summer, our 17-year-old foster daughter, it is a significant FIRST.

Tonight, while Pierre and I are here at the Child Protection Summit, she will be staying overnight at her best friend’s house.  This first sleepover, for Summer, is symbolic because it heralds in one more way in which she is living a typical teenager’s life.  It has been so much fun to see her excitement and hear her express the joy she feels: “I can’t believe I finally get to stay overnight with my best friend.”

Often when children come from a history of abuse and all the control and secrecy that surrounds it, it is not uncommon for parents to keep their children on a tight leash. For abusive parents, not allowing sleepovers, or even play dates with friends comes not from a posture of keeping kids safe, but from one of keeping secrets in.

But in the system of care, we know that historically not allowing sleepovers stems from our desire to protect children. But to foster children, the end result is the same. To them, it signifies one more way in which their life is not the same.

As a foster parent, I am grateful for the recent changes in the law, championed by Gov. Scott and Sen. Nancy Detert, allowing me more discretion in my parenting to determine what activities are appropriate and beneficial for the children in my care.

Summer’s best friend, Karly, who knows nothing of normalcy or the recent Let Kids be Kids Law, summarized this event succinctly, “Oh, so you can be a normal kid now.”

Here’s what Summer said: “To the average teenager, getting to spend the night at a friend’s house may be something they’re able to do on a regular basis. However, for me it is a privilege I’ve never had.  By law children were only allowed to spend the night IF the other parents were finger-printed and licensed as back-ups. Now, because of new laws in place many children and teens will hopefully get a chance to just hang out and be kids! I know I will enjoy spending the night at my best friend’s house! As she put it, ‘’I’m glad you can finally be normal!’’

On another note, my husband, Pierre and I are ecstatic to be attending our first Summit. We feel like we are a part of history, in which a palatable change has ignited in Florida’s system of care. Laws like Let Kids be Kids, Independent Living  and initiatives like the Quality Parent Initiative all serve as a strong foundation to usher in a new era of enhanced care.


Guest post by Summer, daughter of foster parents Denise and Pierre. Summer will be entering her junior year of high school at the Academy of Arts & Minds in Coconut Grove, FL.  She majors in creative writing but also loves to draw.  She has chosen to stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood.

Summer's beautiful smile!


Often times I find myself in a situation that seems all too familiar, yet somehow foreign. I find myself caught, so to say, between one world and the next. I don’t know which road to take or whether I’m doing something the right way or the wrong way. All I can do is follow my gut feeling and wing it (which is normally not the best thing to do).

I get told a lot that I don’t need to make all of these decisions on my own.  Or that it’s okay to screw up here and now. But what people fail to realize is that I often feel as if my previous track record is too much for yet another ‘’failure.’’ I feel like I can’t mess up, like it’s me against the world.

A therapist would say that those ‘’mistakes’’ weren’t your fault – actually most people would. And most of the time, if you’re anything like me, you’ll just brush off what people say. They can’t possibly know what they’re talking about right? Right.

Not a single person in this world will ever come close to facing the hardships you have faced as an individual. No one has lived the same life as you. No one has faced the same constant chastisement or neglect. So the next time someone tells you that ‘’it’s alright,” go ahead and tell them they’re wrong. But remember they are only wrong for falsely sympathizing.

Under most circumstances a youth should never be blamed for the outcome of his/her life. It’s not fair. You weren’t asked to be created and you sure as hell didn’t ask to be put through whatever it is you did go through. You didn’t ask to be beaten or molested. You didn’t ask to go to school every day in long sleeved shirts so that you could cover up the bruises from last night. You didn’t ask to be alone, or to be teased on every day for being the quiet, disassociated freak in the corner. You asked for none of it.

You didn’t ask to be abused or neglected no matter how little or how much it was. You didn’t ask not to be loved. You didn’t ask to be born to a pot-head and a prostitute. You didn’t ask. You asked for none of it, so why the hell does everyone around you keep dishing out such a big plate of hate? No one really knows why. You could search a thousand years and still never find the answer to that. And that’s because there is no answer to it.

The only possible solution is to keep on living; to overcome. To put your best foot forward and forget everyone who set aside their lives to make your own miserable: to restart. Trust me there is a restart button in life, but you’re only going to find it if you really want it.

For a good portion of my life I wallowed around in self-pity, always afraid of what would happen if I stepped outside of my box. I wanted change but I wasn’t willing to take the steps necessary to do so. I couldn’t take them because I was locked in a perpetual chaos. I was stuck floating in some sort of survival mode, and I was afraid.

Christmas photo with my new family.

Christmas photo with my foster family.

That part of me changed shortly after arriving in foster care. I felt safe, and most importantly, I knew I was safe. I knew there were new people in my life that were more than willing to do whatever it took to make sure I would never go through what I did before.

It’s been more than two years since my placement in foster care. I no longer need to worry about whether or not I’ll be able to live, rather I find myself thinking about how I will live.

A wise man once said, ‘’The circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.’’ Often times I find myself reflecting upon those words in moments of weakness, because I know that they are true.

One of my baby sisters in my new family.

One of my baby sisters in my foster family.

You are safe, secure and loved

Guest post by Denise Beeman Sasiain, foster mother to Summer, 17, who will stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood; Isabella Hope, 3, who they’ve had since birth and adopted last year; Xavier (aka X-man), 2, who they are in the process of adopting; and Daniella Joy, 1, who they’ve also had from birth and recently adopted.


Denise and Izzie

Denise and Izzie

It is just past midnight and Isabella, our 3 year old, has woken up three times since we put her to bed.  Instantly upon waking, she will loudly cry, then call mommy, and come running in a panic.   Each time she gets up, I hold her, rock her and tell her, “You are safe, you are secure, you are loved and you are mommy’s dream come true.”  She nods her head sleepily, and I tuck her back in bed.   Some nights she sleeps uninterrupted and peaceful, but tonight has been particularly challenging and her fear level is palpable.

Isabella’s inability to readily fall asleep and stay asleep is not a new development.  She was exposed to cocaine and prescription opioids while she was in her mother’s womb. In addition to going through withdrawal as a newborn, she would sometimes sleep only three or four hours in total during a 24-hour period.  She experienced jittery and suffering tremors, poor feeding, stiff muscles, a very high startle response and colic.

When Izzie was about 15 months old, she started occupational therapy.  Evaluations showed she had significant sensory motor dysfunction in both tactile and auditory processing arenas.  She also displayed chronic feeding sensitivities and a slight fine motor delay.  At about 18 months, she started speech therapy for her language delays.

Izzie, Pierre and X-man

Izzie, Pierre and X-man

Izzie improved quickly in regards to fine motor skill development, but it took a longer time for her to catch up in regards to the intelligibility and development of her speech.  But this last spring, at 3 ½ years old, she had a princess tea party with her speech pathologist, celebrating her graduation from speech therapy.

However, things like the texture of food is a still a significant challenge and major deterrent to her eating.  Isabella raises the bar in regards to the term “picky eater.”  There are only a very few foods which she will consume.  Her occupation therapist worked with her consistently during a two-month period before she was willing to eat a banana.

All the noise at Disney really affected Izzie.

All the noise at Disney really affected Izzie.

Her auditory processing abilities are still a challenge – ordinary things like running a vacuum cleaner or a blender make her extremely agitated. We have learned to be prepared for the inevitable triggers and  volume-reducing earmuffs have made a huge difference. At our recent trip to the Magic Kingdom at Disney, the high volume hand dryers in the restrooms sent her into a major panic and tantrum. When we go to a performance like the Nutcracker ballet or a Disney show, we plan ahead which parent will more than likely spend the duration of it out in the lobby.

In the big scheme of things, if Izzie doesn’t like loud dance clubs as a young adult, we as parents won’t be too upset!  But we are hopeful that her tactile and auditory sensory motor challenges, as well as her sleep issues, will continue to improve.   She is now average in height and weight and thriving.    Her day school teachers rave about her, saying, “If only all our students were like Isabella.”  In all respects, now at 3 1/2  years old, she is happy, outgoing, intelligent, warm-hearted and funny.  As parents, we could not be happier and prouder.   In every way, she is our dream come true baby girl. In recognition of our hope-fulfilled adoption in May of 2012, we named her Isabella Hope Sasiain.

A true princess.

A true princess.

As with all our children, we educate ourselves on their particular challenges, procure the healthiest amount of positive intervention possible, expect a miraculous outcome, but prepare ourselves if the end result falls short of our hopeful expectations.  Moreover, life has taught us to embrace our shortfalls and weaknesses, especially when the outcome is not within our control.  Our weaknesses can make us stronger.

If you or someone you know are pregnant, or may become pregnant, and are taking prescription pain medication, visit or call 1-877-233-5656 for information and resources. 

“Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them. And if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next.” 
― Ben CarsonGifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story