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East County Wednesday, Jul. 1, 2020 2 months ago

New direction for Sheriffs Youth Ranches property in Manatee County

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Group home services discontinued at the Rye Preserve campus.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

At the back of Rye Preserve, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches has operated group homes for foster children since the 1990s.

However, now the organization now is working to redefine the future of its Rye Preserve campus, which it operates through a longterm lease with Manatee County.

On June 1, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, a nonprofit that provides residential care and programming to at-risk children and summer camps, discontinued its residential group home services at Manatee River Youth Ranch at Rye Preserve.

Maria Knapp, a spokeswoman for Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, said the organization, which has operated in Manatee County since the 1990s, will focus on community programming.

To start, it will continue as planned with its summer day camp program, which began June 29. Typically, there’s capacity for up to 60 children, but this year it will take up to 32 due to social distancing guidelines, Knapp said.

Beyond that, Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches staff are still hammering out details of how the organization’s future programming might look. Knapp said summer day and residential camps are likely, but other possibilities could include things like respite weekends for families or leadership training events.

The campus has a swimming pool, three houses and high- and low ropes courses. 

“Our goal is to run community-centered programs,” Knapp said. “We have more communities being built, even on Rye Road. There are all sorts of great things we can do.”

Knapp said Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches needs to talk with Manatee County about how it would like to use the property before it can proceed with any new programming. It has a longterm lease with Manatee County for the property it uses at Rye Preserve, but owns its facilities and buildings. 

Ron Serpliss, program director for Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches’ Manatee and Bartow camp locations, said the agency will continue to maintain its presence here.

“It's, 'How do we meet the needs of those being underserved?’ That's the goal,” he said. “There are some pretty cool ideas of ways to serve the community.”

Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker said he is eager to hear about plans and hopes they will showcase the beautiful habitat at Rye Preserve.

Knapp said the changes are the result of pressure from the state and federal governments to shift away from any type of group care model for children in foster care. 

Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches has operated a group home for foster children at Rye Preserve in Manatee County since the 1990s. In partnership with the lead services agency, the Safe Children Coalition, Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches has provided the venue and day-to-day care of children, who typically live onsite for up to one year. The format has provided a married couple — called  the cottage “mom” and “pop” — for up to 10 children in each of three homes on the property. The caretakers serve as surrogate parents, cooking meals, helping with homework and handling other day-to-tasks associated with a child’s care. 

Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches President and CEO Bill Frye, in a statement, said changes in the federal Family First Prevention Services Act led to the need for the change. Over the past year, placements of foster children into the Youth Ranches’ group care facilities at Rye Preserve dropped from 20 children to two. 

“While the majority of our funding comes from private donations, we cannot continue to operate this campus with four children when we have other residential campuses with homes available,” Frye said. “Although we are deeply saddened with this decision, we recognize that we need to remain good stewards of our donors’ support, and we will be changing the Bradenton campus from residential care to community programming.”

Knapp said at the state and federal levels there has been a growing effort to shift children away from group foster care models to placement in individual homes, even if that means relocating children to other areas. Sarasota and Manatee counties currently — and historically — have been short of foster homes, particularly for groups of siblings who prefer to be fostered together.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells, who sits on the board for Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, said he witnessed the value of the program at Rye Preserve and is disappointed in the legislative changes that ultimately dictated the closure of the program.

 “The youth ranch is anything but a bad thing,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to help kids.”

Wells said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office removes more than 300 children from their homes each year.

He said he believes Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches will find other creative ways to serve the community.

“They’re always trying to find innovative ways to help kids and help families,” he said. “I know they will be able to do it.” 

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