MAXWELL: Deed restrictions rule out foster care

3/28/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Brooklyn native Elena Burge is a mother of four and a grandmother. Married for the second time, she has lived in Pinellas County for the last 31 years. She, her husband and her mother reside in Tamarac-By-The-Gulf in Seminole.

Her lifelong passion has been volunteering for causes that serve those less fortunate than herself. Not wealthy, she willingly shares with others. Her latest mission is a simple one: She wants to use her home as a temporary emergency shelter for infants.

She already has a bassinet, a crib, baby and car seats, and she has playpens on layaway. Her 1,587-square-foot home _ two bedrooms, two bathrooms, dining and family and living rooms, den _ is clean, warm and cheery. The large yard, with prolific orange trees, is manicured, and it buffers the house from its neighbors.

But Burge’s dream of rescuing infants may remain just that _ a dream.

Tamarac-By-The-Gulf is a community that is proud of its tough deed restrictions. One such restriction is age. At least one occupant on each “lot” must be 55 or older. A person 16 or older may live there only if a 55-year-old is the permanent live-in occupant. A person under 16 may not live in Tamarac, unless the board of directors declares a hardship, such as death or disability.

Young children, especially infants, need not apply.

Burge, 55, and her husband want to persuade the association’s board to make an exception for their request to take in infants a few times a month. To prepare themselves, the Burges trained with Family Continuity, the private, non-profit organization that matches children with foster parents.

In her first official encounter with the association, Burge’s plea was outright rejected, with one member insulting her, she said. “What I’ll be providing is emergency shelter, like if a mother was going in the hospital and the grandmother can’t keep the baby,” she said. “And it would be just two or three days, just a couple of times a month. When I heard about the desperate need for foster parents for infants, I wanted to help. I didn’t think we would have a problem.”

Elaine Fulton-Jones, communications director for Family Continuity, said Pinellas County has a severe shortage of foster parents. The county has only 211 foster homes for 502 children. Of these residences, 35 serve more than five children _ far too many. Fulton-Jones said that Burge would be the ideal foster parent because she stays at home and can give an infant 100 percent of her time. Most foster parents work and cannot give their charges their full attention.

Compounding the problem, Fulton-Jones said, is that potential foster parents are selective in the kind of children they will accept. Many will not take children who have been abused or who have any mental or physical disabilities. Some of the saddest cases occur when siblings must be separated to place them in nurturing homes. The absurdity is that communities with age restrictions have many older people who live there and cannot take in their own grandchildren _ even temporarily.

“The loss of people like the Burges is really tragic,” Fulton-Jones said.

Burge, who spent her entire adult life working in child care and orphanages, said that Tamarac residents told her they object to her home becoming an emergency shelter because they do not want her to turn the arrangement into a business. Not to worry: Family Continuity pays a mere $283 a month per child, which is prorated if the child is not kept the entire month. This is charity.

“If we get enough to pay for diapers and formula, that would be fine,” Burge said. “It’s not about money. It’s about making a difference for these babies. Helping these babies is not going to hurt anybody. I’m very upset because some children could have gotten some real love and care.”

Burge said residents also claim to worry that angry fathers will come looking for their children. Not a chance: The names and whereabouts of the infants are confidential. So what is really going on? Why does the Tamarac association refuse to make an exception in this case? Board president Paul Reed did not return telephone calls to his office.

“I think these people are selfish, and I think it’s very wrong,” Burge said. “I don’t know what their real fears are. All of my children and grandchildren are healthy, and my mother, thank God, is still with us. I have so much to be thankful for. I want to give back. They can amend their bylaws and let us help these babies if they wanted to.”

By all accounts, however, Tamarac residents are defending the battlements and will enforce their draconian rules in their myopic pursuit of order.