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Foster care: OK but improvements needed

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 5/18/2011, 5 p.m.

"I consider myself a professional mother," said Annie Hall, who is currently caring for five foster children. "I enjoyed raising my kids, and I'm enjoying it again."

Hall and her husband, Elisha, a retired Marine, nurtured three of their own children, who now are 28, 30 and 33. She used to visit with her sister in Palmdale, and helped her with the five children she adopted out of the foster care system.

"I never expected to have five foster children of my own," Hall said. "It just worked out that way."
"They have issues and need love," Hall added. "Love can turn around just about anything."

On May 12, the Halls went to court to formally adopt 4 1/2-year-old Ruben. They have cared for him since he was 2 months old. Ruben is developmentally delayed, has cerebral palsy, autism and seizures.

He is Hispanic, as are 20 percent of the children in United States foster care system. The Halls are African American.

The youngest in the Hall household is Aniyah, whom they adopted in December. She is now 2 and deals with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), asthma and is developmentally delayed. Her sister, Olivia, is 4 1/2 and also has FAS issues and was exposed to drugs before birth.

Their other two children are biological brothers--Dearrione and Kamerrion--who are 5 and 9 years old, respectively. Dearrione has seizures and is developmental delayed, and his brother has heart problems and mental retardation. The Halls have legal guardianship of the brothers, which has a different definition for foster care, Annie explained.

"If a foster child needs surgery and if their biological parent is not agreeing to the surgery or unavailable, the foster parent has to take the matter to the courts," she said.

"Ruben needed a hernia operation and a circumcision," she added. "We lost track of his mother. It took two weeks, but we got the court papers and took them to the hospital."

Hall is an advocate for the foster care system, talking it up in workshops, meetings, even in the supermarket checkout line.

"There is such a great need," she said. "And you don't have to be rich, or pretty--you just have to have love in your heart."

She admits that the foster care system gets a bad rap, but she hopes to help change that and help more children find "forever homes."

"Most of the kids reunite with their families, which is the ultimate goal for foster care," added Hall. "There are a lot of good foster parents out there, but you only hear about the bad ones," she said.

Eleven other children have temporarily received foster care in the Hall's home, and they have left to rejoin their biological families. Of the estimated 276,266 children who exited foster care during 2009, 51 percent were reunited with parents or primary caretakers.

Annie enjoys seeing her former charges when they visit and admitted she had a beautiful Mother's Day.

She still gets calls for help from the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).

"DCFS knows how to pull at your heartstrings," Hall said. "But we can't take anymore."

When Karen Bass served in the California Assembly, she authored a bill to ensure that the state Department of Social Services would support applications for the federal matching Family Connection Grant in order to connect foster children with family members.

Now that Bass is a U.S. representative, she has introduced legislation recognizing May as National Foster Care Month.

"Our society is judged on how we treat the most vulnerable amongst us," Bass said. "We must provide a hand up to foster youth and celebrate their accomplishments, praise foster families, caregivers and relatives for their selflessness to others, continue investing in life-improving foster care services and always assist children as they age out of the foster care system."

Foster care settings include, but are not limited to, nonrelative foster family homes where youngsters are placed in homes of strangers; relative foster homes where a family member takes them in; group homes; emergency shelters (temporary short-term housing, residential facilities; and pre-adoptive homes. Almost half (48 percent) of children were in nonrelative foster family homes in 2009, a 1 percent increase since 2000.

And contrary to the assumption that African American children are less likely to be adopted, but Black children are adopted at a slower pace than other youngsters. If one looks at longitudinal data carefully, African American children are more likely to be adopted than other children, and this increased likelihood coincides with the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

According to a 2006 article by Fred Wulczyn (a senior research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago) and colleagues, of almost 400,000 children who first entered foster care in six states between 1990 and 2002, 24 percent of African American children were eventually adopted, compared to 16 percent of White or Latino children. However, it took longer for these adoptions to occur. Further, the data show that children from urban areas who were placed with relatives were adopted at a higher rate (26 percent) than those placed in other forms of care.

The goal of foster care in L.A. County is to reconnect children with their families.

Family finders and kinship navigator programs reconnect foster kids to relatives. Specialized social workers, called family finders, use computer search technology to look for family members of "cold cases"--children who spend years moving from foster home to foster home.

A kinship navigator is a person who connects these relatives with the myriad of support services such as health, financial and legal services that many of them are unaware of, but entitled to and need to help them care for the child.

In fact, that is one drawback of the system that has singed its reputation--not enough of the foster parents or foster children are fully aware of the support services they are entitled to.

"I know one young man, he's 19, who complained that he missed out on educational benefits," said Dorothy Lee, who leads a nonprofit organization named Before the Transition Inc. "He just didn't take advantage of all he could. These youth need to know how to catch a bus, to keep a checkbook, budget their finances, how to save. They need to learn how to get out there and live day by day.

"I used to give workshops about dressing for success part-time," Lee continued. "And I realized that foster youth don't have a lot when they transition out of the system. They need more help in some kind of way before they transition into the world."

This month, Lee is busy networking and gathering enough dresses, suits and shoes in her clothes closet to outfit the more than 180 foster youth who will be celebrating their graduation in June.
Of the estimated 276,266 children who exited foster care in the U.S. during fiscal year 2009, 11 percent were emancipated, either aging out of the system between the ages of 18 and 21, or minors who left early.

"The DCFS is doing a good job trying to help the kids in getting what they need, when they go to a transition home," Lee added. "They have some life skills workshops, but preparation needs to be much better in certain areas."

Lee knows the system gets a bad rap, but some of its outcomes are determined about how proactive the youth are about preparing for emancipation.

"Some of them make it, but some of them don't," she said. "But my heart goes out to all of them."
The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System recently released statistics that counted the children and surveyed the trends in foster care from the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2009. At that time, 40 percent of the children in foster care were White/Non-Hispanic; 30 percent were Black/Non-Hispanic; 20 percent were Hispanic and 10 percent were other races or multiracial.

Altogether, there were an estimated 423,773 American children in foster care at that count, nearly 130,000 fewer than there were in the year 2000. A positive trend.

Joseph Devall is the director of the Kinship Program at the Community Coalition, which offers support for caregivers, educating them on services that can assist them in raising foster youth and preparing them for the world.

"We are like a one-stop shop," Devall said. "We connect caregivers to social service agencies, mental health and other health services. For example, if you need to find a food bank or learn how to secure legal guardianship, we're there."

The program also advocates for changes in the foster care system.

"We need more mental health resources--individual and group therapy, screenings for mental health issues," Devall said. "These children are not with their birth parents, so they've experienced some trauma there.

"Caregivers need more parenting and child development classes and tutorials--some support for the issues they're going through."

Devall also is pushing for equity in those community services available and delivered to foster care parents and relative foster homes.

"Relative caregivers don't have access to the same resources," Devall said. "They have to find their own social worker, they have to find their own tutor. The support services are disparate and that is one of our major issues, because at the end of the day you are shortchanging the family, the community and the kids."

Pamela Clay managed group homes for foster youth for years, but now as director of Living Advantage Inc., she has come up with an innovative service: a "virtual home."

"CFS gets a bad rap, but they have over 30,000 families in L.A. County," Clay said. "You only hear about the one or two cases when something doesn't go right. They are doing the best to manage a large system."

When it comes to maltreatment of foster youth, there is a national standard goal: "Of all children in foster care during the reporting period, what percent were not victims of a substantiated or indicated maltreatment by foster parents or facility staff members?" The goal is that 99.68 percent of those in care are not victims. In the fiscal year 2009, only 24 states were in compliance with that goal. In other words, in 26 states, more than one percent of youth are being mistreated. Statistics show that 44 percent of maltreatment victims were White; 22.3 percent were African-American and 20.7 percent were Hispanic.

The term "maltreatment" can be interpreted as neglect (78.3 percent of 2009 victims); physical abuse (17.8 percent); sexual abuse (9.5 percent); psychologically maltreated (7.6 percent); and medically neglected (2.4 percent). These percentages add up to more than 100 percent because a child may have suffered more than one type of maltreatment.

One of Clay's goals is to improve the perception of the foster care system.

"These children live transitional lives. They come and they go into a minimum of seven different homes on an average. Sometimes vital life records get lost-birth certificates, vaccination records, identification and Social Security cards."

Children who lose vaccination records often have to take their shots all over again, or may end up with health issues because new doctors don't know their medical history.

If you have your vital life records, you have an identity," she explained. Her organization scans information into a database system.

"Our Virtual Home helps store vital life records so they will be able to be identifiable and able to receive resources," Clay said. "We have an online community for our kids that allows them to get on the Internet and connect, so even when they move around they have a foundation."

Clay is holding a VIP fundraising reception to support her efforts on June 2 and her organization is vying to receive a free Toyota from the car company's "100 Cars for Good" campaign.