Sunday, September 10, 2006

Outspoken advocate for foster children

Foster care advocate honored
Cortney Fielding, Pasadena Star - News. Pasadena, Calif.:Sep 7, 2006.

ALTADENA - Shirlee Smith is no angel.

By her own account, the parenting guru and foster-child advocate is a loud, bossy, pushy woman with a reputation for pestering government agencies until she gets what she wants - or at least gives them a piece of her mind.

So it was a surprise when the 69-year-old Altadena resident learned she would be named one of this year's Congressional "Angels in Adoption" by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena.

"People have called me a lot of things," Smith said, "but angel isn't one of them."

A parenting teacher, longtime Star-News columnist who has recently returned to these pages, television host and author of "They're Your Kids, Not Your Friends," Smith will be recognized in Washington, D.C. later this month for her work as a foster parent.

A former member of the Los Angeles County Adoption Commission, Smith has served as an appointee to the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families.

"Shirlee has a remarkable and tireless dedication to foster children and richly deserves this recognition," Schiff said. "She is a tremendous advocate for foster-care children."

But naturally, the woman known for telling it like it is to parents also has been an outspoken critic of the child-welfare system she has worked so closely with.

Smith believes there are too few people genuinely looking out for the millions of children nationwide in foster placement.

"People pretend to care, but they don't," she said.

Part of the problem is a system that doesn't screen adults adequately before handing over foster children, she said.

The result: Children who need extra love, attention and discipline to overcome hardship end up with caretakers who look at them more as a source of income than as a son or daughter.Smith has raised 13 special-needs children.

But the biggest injustice she sees takes place when they turn 18, and are "emancipated" with little in the way of funding, resources or guidance to aid transition into their new adult lives.

Often, she said, foster parents turn their backs on children when "there's no more check coming."

"You knew the checks were going to stop coming ahead of time," she said. "Letting your kids go - that doesn't mean literally."

Through her parenting classes, a Web site and a Charter Cable TV show, "Talk About Parenting with Shirlee Smith," she is hoping to ensure fewer children end up in the foster system to begin with.

Smith said she realized adults needed help learning to be parents after watching birth mothers of the infant children Smith was caring for come for visitation.

One mother came back after a visit and told Smith not to worry about feeding the infant because she had just fed her a bottle of Kool-Aid.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "Nobody knows they don't know how to be a parent."

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