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Cover Story September 9, 2004

Kids Who Need Parents

So many children, so few homes

 

 

by lyle e davis

by lyle e davis

 

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 parent. 

 

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.

 

You could make a difference in a child’s life.

 

You can make a difference in a child's life.

 

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 Diego County. 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 or neglect.

 

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.  

 

Originally, I 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 this story.

 

We were later to meet Patty Boles.  She and her husband  have nine children, eight of whom are adopted, one of whom was their natural born child. 

 

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 out. 

 

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 it sooner.”

 

Lupe and her husband have served as foster parents to 40 kids in the six years they’ve been part of the program.

 

Whatever the 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 organization.

 

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.”

 

Another 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 said," Baldwin noted.  "They (the parents) also need to explain in very concrete terms what having a new addition will mean in 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."

 

Another 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-faceted  association 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 organization."

 

Boles is 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 are  developmentally delayed, usually, due to neglect, abuse and or the drug influence of the parents.

 

Another 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.

 

Once you 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 necessary.

 

The county 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 classes.

 

How does a child come into the foster parent program?

 

We spoke 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 or children.

 

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 desperately needed.

 

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 Diego County:  But San Diego County has  1,679 licensed foster homes.  Of those, there are five  different type of homes:

LF1 - a neighbor of Johnny’s agree to take care of only Johnny.                              2.7%

An Open License: your standard foster parent         58.6%

LF4 - Adoptive Home    25%

Medicallly Fragile - regularly take older children with medical problems.                   .6%

Options - under age of five, drug drug exposed, medically fragile, hiv+                  12.7%

 

The shortage of foster families isn't just a San Diego problem.

The number 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.

 

The decline 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.

 

The 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.

 

Foster 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 child.

 

Foster parenting has emotional costs, too.

 

The 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.

 

Whatever 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 siblings together.

At times, children spend months in the institutional setting of the Polinsky Children' 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.

 

Such placement 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 session begans.

 

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 were licensed.

 

"They recruit like crazy but they go out the other end," Sokol said.

 

Despite 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 33 years.

 

"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 going."

 

What Does It Cost and How Long Does It Take to Adopt?

 

The cost?  Nothing.

 

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.

 

Patty Boles:  “Every 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 adopt  you 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 to Adopt?

 

You are asked to describe what type of children you would like . . . gender, age group, etc., sometimes a pre-placement visit can be arranged. 

 

Often, the 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.

 

Another foster 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.

 

She deals mostly with ‘medically fragile children.”  Why and how did she get involved in this, one of the more difficult areas of children to manage?

 

She laughs 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.”

 

Barbie goes on: “My license says I’m able to foster parent from 0 to 18 years of age, and that we work with medically fragile children.  We know there is a great void in that category . . . so we do our part, as best we can.”

 

She 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 heart.”

 

There are approximately 224 “Option” homes in San Diego County.  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?

 

A fairly high percentage do.  Some prefer not to.

 

Barbie 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.”

 

Patty 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.”

 

 

Lupe 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.”

 

Lupe’s 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 adopted out?”

 

It’s gut wrenching,” 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.”

 

Lupe:  “It’s 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 County Health 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 teenagers.

 

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 Diego County. About 200 graduate high school each year. County Supervisor 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 foster students  leave 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 agencies.

 

How Do I Learn More About Foster Parenting?

 

The County holds Orientation Meetings on a regular basis.  Contact “Straight From The Heart” for details.

 

In North County, you may wish to contact the same people we interviewed for this story.  They are all part of the “Straight From the Heart” Association.

 

Resale Store -

Resource Center 

 

819 W. SM Blvd

San Marcos, Ca. 92069

744 2240

10am to 3 Tuesday through Friday.

 

email:  sthresource@aol.com

 

Tutoring/Training Center

849 W. San Marcos Blvd.

 

Training Center 851 W. San Marcos Blvd.

 

Numbers to Call

 

If you see child abuse, call:

 

1.800.344.6000

 

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,

The KIDS Line at

1.877.792.KIDS (5437)