I like to think
that all of us are put on this planet with a purpose in life.We may not know what that purpose is at
first, but sometimes things have a way of revealing themselves.
One area where
some of us may have a major purpose in life, an opportunity to do something
really worthwhile, a chance to leave our mark on the world and have people
saying . . . "this world is better for him/her having been here . .
."is that of becoming a foster
Kids come in all kinds of
shapes, moods, and colors. They are happy, they are sad... some are
healthy, some are disabled... they are all a challenge and a joy... they all
need comforting, they all need a home . . . and they all need parenting.
could make a difference in a child’s life.
You can make a difference in a child's
We recently met
several foster parents.To say we were
impressed is an understatement.One,
Guadalupe (Lupe, or Lupita) Acosta, of San Marcos,
has a heart and a home so big that over the past six years she’s been able to
serve as a foster parent to 40 kids.Obviously, many of them were short term foster children, with the
majority of them reuniting with their parents.“That’s the goal,” said Lupe, “to reunify them with their parents.We give them shelter, food, and affection
while whatever problems that caused the child or children to be taken out of
the home are resolved.If we are not
able to reunite the family then we either have a long term foster parenting . .
. or we may find an adoptive family.”
There's a critical
need for more foster parents in San DiegoCounty. There are
approximately 8,000 children in our foster care system, and on any given night,
more than 50 children are waiting for a foster family to take them in. Each
day, another 12 children become in need of out-of-home placement due to abuse
Over this past
week we were privileged to meet with several people who have taken this major
step of faith and had become either a foster parent,
an adopted parent, or both.
happened to meet three kids.They were
in the waiting room of a client of ours.One was an 11 months old, another 5 years old
and the third, 9 years old.I fell
instantly in love, particularly with the 5 year old.I learned they were foster children and met
their foster mother . . . . and that set me off on
We were later to
meet Patty Boles.She and her husbandhave nine
children, eight of whom are adopted, one of whom was their natural born
They adopted their
first child 26 years ago.Three years
later they became foster parents for the first time.They were successful in finding an adoptive
family.Since that time, the Boles have
been foster parents to about 100 kids!This family takes medically fragile kids and have had great
success with them.Most of these
children came through on short-term foster care, most of whom
were either reunited with their parents, or with relatives, or adopted
Ask any foster
parent why they took on this challenge and you are likely to get a number of
answers. For many, the idea of making a difference in the life of another child
(or children) is their motivation. Some enter the foster care system with the
hope of being able to eventually adopt a child. In fact, about two-thirds of
children entering foster care are eventually adopted by a foster family. Others
are "empty nesters" longing to once again fill their homes with the
laughter and activity of small children.
Lupe Acosta and
her husband fell into the latter category.“I had been thinking about
becoming a foster parent for several years,” she says.“It had
been dwelling in my mind; finally, one evening I went to an orientation
meeting.My husband and I talked about
it and thought long and hard about it.We then went to a second orientation meeting.After that, me made
the commitment.We’ve never looked back
and we are happy that we became foster parents and I only regret we didn’t do
Lupe and her
husband have served as foster parents to 40 kids in the six years they’ve been
part of the program.
reason, before taking the step that could forever change not only your life,
but the lives of your family and the children you welcome into your home, take the time to ask yourself one basic question: is
it the right thing for me and for my family?
So, how do you determine if
foster parenting is for you?
The first step is
a frank self-assessment of your reasons for wanting to become a foster
parent.Ask yourself . . .can I be part of the solution for a child's life?Or will my busy schedule preclude me from
adding to this child's life experience positively?
If you think you
can provide a home rich in structure, love and predictability, you may well not
only repair any emotional wounds suffered by the child, or children, but
provide them with a solid foundation of love, respect, discipline, and
Foster parents are
usually able to make a difference in a child's life if they are able to do
three things. First, foster parents must have the ability to love a child
unconditionally. Second, they must be willing to look beyond the issues and
turmoil that a child might bring into the home to find strengths and talents
that are waiting to be nurtured and developed. Finally, foster parents must be
able to offer the child hope for the future.
The next step is
to understand that the child coming to you does so after having undergone
physical and/or emotional abuse that is often beyond comprehension. Many foster
children will arrive at your home "broken in spirit with mental, emotional
and physical hurt.” You as a foster parent need to imagine that besides this
child, standing there on your doorstep is baggage that
became part of this child the first time he or she was abused, tortured,
traumatized, neglected or abandoned. This baggage enters your door when that
child enters the door.
Dr. Jay DiLeo, father of four and foster parent to four additional
children further makes this point by noting: "A child that has been taken from his or her parents has already
been through a lot.As a result, they
often don't go through normal lines of reasoning when confronted with new or
difficult situations.It is the job of
the foster parent to help that child learn how to trust again, provide guidance
when confronted with a complex situation and offer positive reinforcement every
step along the way.”
factor potential foster parents must consider is the effect on their
own family.Dr. DiLeo
stresses the importance of including the entire family in the decision making
process."Talk it over with your children first," he advises."Let
them know what they are in for."This
advice is echoed by Emil Baldwin, Jr., a former foster care/adoption
home-finder for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources who
has also written a number of articles and essays on foster care.
"We always talked with the kids in the applicant's
family and encouraged the parents to listen very closely to what their children
(the parents) also need to explain in very concrete terms what having a new
addition will meanin terms of
children having to share bedrooms, closet space, toys, and mom and dad's time.”
Baldwin also warns that
the effects of bringing foster children into the home can extend beyond the
immediate family.Extended family
members can be "very supportive and
loving," he says, while others "disown the applicants or at least
question their sanity."
consideration that is often overlooked is the family's financial
situation.While foster families are
given a monthly stipend, the amount varies greatly, depending upon the child
and his or her needs.Basically, in San
Diego County, you can expect about $425 per month to cover expenses for a child
aged 0 to 4 years, amounts vary for different age levels; however, if a child
is developmentally disabled, the stipend could be as high as $1308 per
month.While the child is normally
covered for medical expenses under Medi-Cal that
sometimes doesn't cover everything.If
it's an infant, for example, there will be diapers, formula, etc.For older children there will be the cost of
food, school supplies, entertainment, so figure on
some money coming out of the family budget and there's a reasonable chance that
the amount might be a significant amount.
"Foster parents certainly don't
come into this program for the monthly stipend," says Patty Boles,
Executive Director of Straight From the Heart, a multi-facetedassociation for foster parents, and
President of North San Diego County Foster Parents Association, located in San Marcos."It
comes from the heart . . . which is how we derived the name for our
a good example of what can and often does happen with foster parents.She has adopted eight of the children that
came to her as foster children.She
points out that 65% of foster children aredevelopmentally delayed, usually, due
to neglect, abuse and or the drug influence of the parents.
important factor in your decision should be the level of commitment you feel
you can provide.Some foster parents are
needed for short-term placements lasting several days or weeks, others are
needed to care for children for several years.Are you the type of person who easily becomes attached?If so, then perhaps you should state your
preference for a child who will need long-term care.
have determined where you are . . . your reasons for becoming a foster parent . . and if you still feel
comfortable in moving forward . .you now need to be trained . . . and then certified.Plan on submitting to an
in-depth personal evaluation which can include questions about your finances,
health, family, employment, friends, personal accomplishments and aptitude for
dealing with difficult children.You can also expect a background check for criminal activity, sexual
offenses and child abuse.Finally, your
home will likely be inspected to ensure it is safe and has sufficient living
and bed-space.You can also expect
regular (and sometimes, unannounced) visits from caseworkers after children
have been placed in your home to ensure certain conditions and standards are
maintained.Finally, training will be
actively is recruiting new foster parents. To be eligible, you must be over age
18 and have the ability to support yourself. You can live in either a house or
an apartment and be single or married. Working parents are welcome as long as
appropriate child care can be arranged. You will be asked to submit
fingerprints for a criminal background check, get a health screening and tuberculosis
test, complete first-aid and CPR training and attend a series of foster-parent
How does a child come into the foster parent program?
with Gary Seiser, Senior Deputy, Office of County
Counsel, Juvenile Dependency Division:
"We determine whether a child can
and/or should be removed from his parents.We also try to determine if a 'reunification' can be effected.That simply means that once the problem(s)
are removed, is it possible to bring the child back into the family unit and
have him in a safe environment?That is our goal.Even if we remove the child from the family
unit, we still arrange for visitation with the parents.We have to determine how often those
visitations are conducted, whether supervised or unsupervised."
Seiser pointed out that
there are seven full time court rooms in the county dealing with these
issues.There are a lot of children
involved but the bulk of the children his department deals with are under 10
years of age.
"Typically, what happens is
someone calls the hotline with a report of child abuse.The caller is interviewed and the caller's
identity is kept confidential.This call
is referred to a social worker within the Social Services Agency.The Social Workers do an investigation if
abuse is reported.Our office then
represents the child in court.Once we
have care, custody and control of the child, we may seek to place them at San Pasqual Academy, in Escondido, which is devoted exclusively
to foster children, or to New Alternatives, or other Emergency Shelter
resources that are in a position to provide educational benefits, as well as a
secure environment for foster child candidates.
It is fairly common to have children
enter our system as a result of drug background.Alcohol, drugs . . . they often are reflected
in child abuse.”
Seiser was asked, “If you can’t reunite the child/children
with the parents, what then?”
“Once we have the children in our
system, our immediate goal is to have them stabilized.Sometimes we seek relative care (of the
family). Even non-relative extended family members . . .neighbors . . .church.
. . we'll explore a variety of possibilities that might best benefit the child
Once they are stabilized, they are
warm, well fed, well rested, and have resources available to them while they await stage two of their adventure.
They then, unfortunately, become part
of the list of kids we have waiting for a foster home.”
How Many Foster Parents Are Needed?
“We badly need candidates for foster
parents.Ideally, the foster parents
should be willing and able to take children of color . . . to take older
children . . . or children with various disabilities, whether developmental or
physical.Above all, we are seeking
quality foster parents.
But we have a number of areas where
people can help with the problem.For
example, businesses who would place teenagers in jobs . . . places to mentor,
people who can donate things like clothes . . . dresses for proms . . . old
sports equipment.There's so much need.”
While it's true that we have some 8,000
kids in the foster care system, what the public often does not realize is that
we get thousands of calls who are screened out and never come into the juvenile
dependency system.In fact, we can only
intervene forcibly in cases of serious neglect that might bring harm to the
child or children.There are an awful
lot of kids who are in homes that have abuse, but have not passed the threshold
necessary for our social workers or courts to rule that we should remove them
from the home.
The good news about that phenomenon is that some parents are
willing to accept help.That is, if
parents are shown that they are abusing their children, and that there are
resources to help them overcome this problem, anger management classes, drug
and alcohol rehab programs, parenting programs . . . some parents will
cooperate and we have a better than even chance of working things out.
Another relatively recent concept we employ is called
'concurrent planning.'All that means is
that while the goal was and is reunification of the child with the parent, we
hedge our bets by arranging for an alternative permanent plan such as adoption,
guardianship, or long term foster care.Everything is on the table and above board with the parents.They are told in no uncertain terms that this
is what we are doing.
We would go for 6, 12, 18 months of keeping the child safe
and trying our best to arrange for reunification.After that, if the court agrees that
reunification does not seem possible . . .we then go
to the alternative permanent plan.We
often will seek foster parents in these cases who have indicated both a willingness, interest, and ability to adopt.
In concurrent planning . . . we plan from the beginning for
two possible alternatives:
One, return the child to parent(s), but two, find a child a
home if reunification doesn't occur.
We try to identify families willing to keep children
permanently but also willing to work with parents to unify.These are concurrent services foster homes.
As there is a void for foster parents, there is also a void
for adoptive parents.Both are
We need foster homes that will consider adoption
.We are straight up, everything
is on the table and above board with the parents of the child/children, ‘we'll
work to reunify and will help you, but will also look for a home to commit to
child on a permanent basis . . .”
Ann Fox, Manager,
Foster Care/Foster Home Licensing for the Health and Human Services Agency of San DiegoCounty:ButSan DiegoCountyhas1,679 licensed
foster homes.Of those, there are fivedifferent type
LF1 - a neighbor
of Johnny’s agree to take care of only Johnny.2.7%
An Open License:
your standard foster parent58.6%
LF4 - Adoptive
Medicallly Fragile -
regularly take older children with medical problems..6%
Options - under
age of five, drug drug exposed, medically fragile, hiv+12.7%
shortage of foster families isn't just a San Diego problem.
of foster children in the United States rose 76 percent
between 1985 and 1995, according to the Child Welfare League of America. During
that same period, the number of foster parents fell from 147,000 to 142,000.
is blamed on a variety of factors: more women working outside the home, more
troubled and disturbed children coming into the
system, low reimbursement and too little help for families.
situation is so dire that the traditional preference for a foster parent -- a
married, stay-at-home woman -- has been replaced. Now, a foster parent can be
single or gay, can be just about any age and can work outside the home.
parents who have jobs and take in young children must pay for child care out of
their own pockets. The county does pay an annual clothing allowance of $100 per
parenting has emotional costs, too.
children often have undergone such abuse or neglect that they require extra
love, patience and attention. Some are so disturbed they require years of
therapy. On top of that, foster parents have to navigate a complex bureaucracy
to get services and information they need.
"I think people get frustrated and
drop out. It is the system that gets them. It' s not
the kids," said Pam Sokol, president of the
San Diego County Foster Parent Association.
the reason, the result is clear: American society has too few havens for some
of its most needy kids.
Not Enough Homes
The shortage of
foster homes means that foster parents are pressured to take in the maximum
number of children their license allows. One family recently was permitted to
accept eight foster children -- the typical maximum is six -- in order to keep
At times, children
spend months in the institutional setting of the PolinskyChildren' s Center, the county shelter for those who
have been abused and neglected, while waiting for a home. Or, when Polinsky is full, they temporarily are placed in expensive
short-term group homes.
decisions are not only costly, but they can further traumatize a child who
already has been removed from his family.
Many folks seem
eager to get the chance to help the children.They line up to get their fingerprints taken and maybe even begin
filling out what would be a small mountain of paperwork before the orientation
But chances are
most of the people in the room -- despite their good intentions -- will never
take a child into their homes.
Half of the 1,481
people who began the process of becoming foster parents in fiscal year 1997-98
never turned in their license applications. Only 383 finished the program and
"They recruit like crazy but they go out the other
end," Sokol said.
difficulties like these, longtime foster parents find tremendous rewards in
what they do.
"You give a lot of help, you give a lot of time and
your money, but you get blessings back," said Nadine Sahgun, a soft-spoken woman who has taken more than 100
children into her four-bedroom Vista home in the past
"What you tell new foster parents is no matter how
messed up the system may seem, no matter how aggravating everything can get,
when you see a child heal and trust you, it is better than any drug you can
take in the world.
"It is the most wonderful thing and keeps you
What Does It Cost and How Long Does It Take to Adopt?
You may adopt a
child as an individual or as a couple . . . and it is not necessary to have an
attorney.Attorneys are typically used
more in private placement adoptions as opposed to an agency adoption. Going
through the county, there is no fee.But
. . . and it’s a big but, there is an element of time.
It will probably
take about two years to adopt a child.
case is different . . . but usually it takes a couple years . . . there is home
study, classes, background checks, a lot of interview process that goes on,
it’s much more intensive to adopt than to foster . . . home study, averages nine
months .. there’s
first aid and CPR classes, fingerprints, just a lot of precautions are
taken.Once you are approved to adoptyou go into a
pool of families that are waiting.Presently, there are about 150 families approved and waiting for kids .
. . it ebbs and flows.Most months we
have a number of kids available for adoption . . . the problem is one of
matching adoptive parents with the children, many of whom have special needs.
Do I get to Pick the Child I Want
You are asked to
describe what type of children you would like . . . gender, age group, etc., sometimes a pre-placement visit can be arranged.
benefits of being a foster parent are readily apparent.You have had the opportunity of not only
bonding with the child, and he with you, but you pretty much know what the
relationship will be like.You’ve seen
the strengths and weaknesses, just as the child has observed yours.This is probably an ideal way to adopt.
parent with whom we met is Barbie Coldwell.In the four years she has been a foster parent she and her husband have
taken in 23 children; most were short-term foster children.The longest she has had a child is 10 months.
mostly with ‘medically fragile children.”Why and how did she get involved in this, one of the more difficult
areas of children to manage?
and says, “Well, I kinda
got talked into it.There was this baby,
a victim of the ‘shaken baby syndrome.’It had a shunt which allowed the fluid to drain from its brain.This was a high risk baby.We agreed to become its foster parents.We were successful.So successful that the County managed to find
adoptive parents for the baby and today, that baby is alive and well and faces
a realistic future in life.”
“That was a good feeling,” she says.“We
know that baby could likely have not survived.We made a difference.We stay in
touch with that child as well as its adoptive family.We actually stay in touch with many of our
kids because most of the kids we serve as foster parents for are adopted
out.Other foster parents have a higher
reunification percentage, our children tend to be
adopted out more.”
As a result
of this positive experience, Barbie generally takes only medically fragile
children.Today, she has a child that
was born at 30 weeks gestation, 10 weeks early.The child has had open heart surgery, is presently in Intensive Care and
has been for two and a half weeks, and is having respiratory issues.
“Taking medically fragile children
means you run the risk of having a child die while in your home.We’ve never lost a child but we’ve called 911
several times.Most of my kids have
medical issues requiring frequent trips to doctors, hospitals and, sometimes,
feeding tubes. We know we’ve saved a number of children from dying.God only knows what would have happened to
them had they not had foster parents to look after them.”
on: “My license says I’m able to foster
parent from 0 to 18 years of age, and that we work withmedically fragile children.We know there is a great void in that
category . . . so we do our part, as best we can.”
explains her motivation:“They have a chance to live.Many of these babies would die if we didn’t
take them in.Doctors and nurses know
and understand that rewarding feeling that comes when you save someone’s life,
simply by intervening.It’s a reward
that is hard to put into words.It’s
just there.In your
approximately 224 “Option” homes in San DiegoCounty.These homes handle medically fragile children
from 0 to 5 years of age, and may include children who are drug exposed, HIV+
and/or medically fragile.
Do Foster Parents Plan To Adopt?
fairly high percentage do.Some prefer not to.
Caldwell:“No, we don’t plan on adopting.We’re comfortable in our role of caring for medically fragile children
and helping to find adoptive parents.”
Boles:“We have nine children, one naturally born child, eight adopted, so
yes, we chose to add these eight children to our family.And we are delighted.”
Acosta:“We haven’t adopted yet.There
was one little girl . . . if she hadn’t been reunited with her parents, I would
have adopted her.I cried for a week
when she left us.”
comment about crying for a week when a child left caught our attention.“How,”
we asked, “can you possibly handle the
emotional strain when you have a child with whom you have bonded, and fallen in
love with, leave the home . . . either to reunify with its parents . . . or
says Barbie Caldwell.“I handle it best by just going out and
getting another baby to care for.”
“How quickly can that be done?” we asked.
“Usually within 24 hours.We’re all certified, they know who we are,
what we’re capable of, what our preferences are.In my case, taking only medically fragile
babies, there is a greater supply than we can accomodate,
so it happens pretty quickly.”
hard, but you get used to it.Of course
you fall in love with the kids . . . and hate to see them go.Well, some of them.There are some kids you’re glad to see leave
. . . due to them being major behavior problems.That’s just part of what we accept by being
foster parents.All foster children
arrive at our home with some emotional baggage.Most of them we can work with and restore emotional and physical health
to.Some, there is just too much damage
. . .and even if they are reunited with their parents,
the prognosis is not good.It’s a fact
of life we all have to live with.”
All three foster
parents we interviewed agreed that abuse of a child can take many forms.In some, it’s simple neglect.Without interaction with the parent(s) there
is an abuse . . . an inability to relate to others.With other children its
neglect via alcohol or drug abuse.Further, many of these kids may carry the remnants of this abuse and
development disability throughout life . . . often reflecting itself with a
learning disability in school.They also
agree that there is often more baggage at older levels.They have simply had more years of abuse with
which to build more emotional and/or physical baggage.They are more difficult to adopt out and to
find foster parents.Kids with moderate
to great physical or mental disabilities are difficult to place.
The CountyHealth and Human
Services Agency has spent $11 million on
programs to help foster children, including the much-praised San Pasqual Academy in Escondido, a 3-year-old
residential high school exclusively for foster youth. The county also began to
offer more support programs for foster parents and mentorship opportunities for
Budget cuts hurt
Few counties track
high school graduation rates, but San Diego County began doing it six years ago
and found that about half of foster children completed high school. This year
that figure has risen to nearly 75 percent, about 11 points short of the statewide
graduation rate for all students.
More than 6,500 of
California's 90,000 foster
children live in San DiegoCounty. About 200
graduate high school each year. CountySupervisor Greg Cox helped
spearhead the effort to improve services for them when he chaired the Board of
Supervisors in 1998.
Officials realized, Cox said, that children growing up in foster care faced
daunting obstacles to finishing school, particularly if they lacked a stable
home or support network.
The peers the
at the academy when they graduate are unlikely to see more new programs because
of $1 million in budget cuts and the loss of 13 staffers. The county was able
to preserve funding for a database, however, to allow
officials to more easily access the records of foster children across several
I Learn More About Foster Parenting?
The County holds
Orientation Meetings on a regular basis.Contact “Straight From The Heart” for details.
In NorthCounty, you may wish to
contact the same people we interviewed for this story.They are all part of the “Straight From the Heart” Association.
819 W. SM Blvd
San Marcos, Ca. 92069
Tuesday through Friday.
849 W. San Marcos
Center 851 W. San
Numbers to Call
If you see child
If you are
interested in either becoming a foster parent or learning more about it, call
either Straight From the Heart at 744.2240 or,