Monday, November 27, 2006

Foster mother shares her story...

Foster care changes the lives of SCV family
Llanos, Connie, LA Daily News, Nov. 25, 2006.

SANTA CLARITA - It's difficult to imagine Christine Hart without her children - her white, nine-seat SUV is constantly filled with the laughter and chatter of her five kids.

"Everyone who knows me knows my children come first," Hart said, as she gazed upon her little ones.

On a recent trip to Santa Clarita Central Park, each of the little Harts ran off to play with their their dad but make frequent trips back to Mom in search of water, Band-aids or even just a hug.
Hart was in her element.

Not too long ago, this kind of life was but a dream for Hart and her husband, Lance. Doctors found she had an undeveloped uterus and would never have children.

"I kept thinking, Why me?" Hart said.

But a chance meeting gave the couple a shot at parenthood and the chance to adopt five children and foster dozens more.

Hart, looking to take her mind off the kids she so badly wanted, joined a local gym years ago. She met a woman there who changed her life.

"I saw this woman at the pool, she had five children, all different ethnicities, and they were all calling her Mom," Hart said.

Hart couldn't contain her curiosity, and a few moments later the woman was telling her about foster care.

Hart had accepted she couldn't have children, so she figured caring for someone else's temporarily, could fill her void.

Growing up in a traditional Filipino family, Hart was always around children. The eldest of five, she helped raise younger brothers and sisters. She even took in and eventually adopted a godson, whom she still visits at least once a year in the Philippines.

Her new friend referred her to a private agency where on her first visit she was handed two photo albums - one pink and one blue - filled with young boys and girls in need of homes. Hart still has trouble understanding how thousands of abandoned and abused boys and girls in the foster-care system can be relegated to color coordinated photo albums.

"I could not believe how these parents, who were given the blessing of having children, would waste their lives," Hart said, tears rolling down her face.

The Harts realized they wanted to give some of these children homes - permanently. But like many other prospective parents, they had some conditions.

They wanted younger children, no older than 5, to rear and mold.

They also wanted either Filipino or white kids, like Hart and her husband of 15 years. Those chances were slim and so the couple agreed to provide foster care to all types of children, then adopt when they found their match.

"Are you sitting down?" the social worker asked Hart. The date was Dec. 5, 1996. There was a baby for the Harts, her name was Alexandra. She was three-quarters Filipino and only 5 months old.

Today Alexandra couldn't bear more resemblance to her adoptive mother. When she's asked who she looks like she promptly answers "my mom."

Foster children continued to pass through the Harts' home. At least 30 children, they said.
Some of the children they wanted to adopt went back to their biological families. Reunification is always the goal in foster care. But letting go wasn't always easy.

"Sometimes even packing their bags was too much for me," Hart said.

A couple of years passed, and one day Hart received a 4-month-old little girl. Dark hair and dark eyes, little Olivia had no family willing to care for her.

Before the Harts finalized her adoption, they learned Olivia had a little brother, Michael. When siblings are in foster care, the goal is to place them in the same home, but you need a willing parent. And the Harts definitely were willing.

Now the Harts had three children, plus the adoptive son in the Philippines.

Their babies grew quickly and the Harts no longer took in foster children. They had their family.
Two years later Hart received another call. Olivia and Michael had another sister. She had been placed in a home before the agency realized that her siblings were with the Harts. The foster family wanted to adopt her but the Harts had priority.

One look at little Ashley closed the deal for the Harts.

The family moved to a larger house. They replenished the supply of baby items as many had been given to friends.

And still another call, this time it was from a hospital where the children's birth mother had had another baby. Still pink, the tiny baby was abandoned by his mother after she gave birth to him six weeks early.

"He was a John Doe," Hart said with tears welling up in her eyes. "He was the size of my arm and I could not let him go."

Christopher, or "Baby" as he is more often called, completed the family.

Hart has contact with the birth mother of the four children. She said she's begged her to consider permanent birth control, which she would pay for.

But she would never turn another baby away.

"How would my children feel if they knew there was another sibling that they had that I didn't take?"

Still the family has its challenges. The children all are asthmatic, a common consequence of exposure to drugs before birth. Three of the five children have been diagnosed with learning disorders.

But the family is tightly knit, traveling the world - to Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Hart has lunch with her school-age children every day. The couple spends the extra money for Catholic school minutes from Hart's job.

Things, she said, have worked out.

"I tell my children, you didn't come from my tummy but you came from my heart. You are the chosen ones."

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Foster youth sue for more mental health support

Better mental health services ordered for foster children
A federal judge tells L.A. County it must improve care and move faster on previous reforms.
Rosenblatt, Susannah. LA Times, Nov. 23, 2006

A federal judge has ordered Los Angeles County to improve mental health services for children in its foster care system and move faster to comply with reforms agreed upon in a past federal agreement.

The court finding, filed this week, validates the conclusions of an independent panel of experts that determined in August 2005 that the county wasn't offering adequate mental health services to foster children still living with their families and did not have a comprehensive plan to help them.

Panel members monitor the county's 2003 federal settlement to improve mental health services for foster children. "

It's an important case for the kids of Los Angeles County," said Kimberly Lewis, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, who has been closely involved with the case. It is "not a small number of children that would be impacted by this."

The order this week will require county officials to screen all kids in the foster system, including those who still live at home; of the county's 40,000 foster children, 23,000 live in foster homes. It's important to treat children with mental health problems at home or in a homelike environment to keep them out of the foster system, Lewis said.

The settlement sprang from a class-action lawsuit by representatives of five children who said they received substandard care.

County officials say they are making progress. The major point of contention is "the speed with which it's reasonable to proceed in the expansion of the specialized services," said Marvin Southard, director of the mental health department.

"In general, I think we have agreed with the panel that foster care kids need a wide array of support," Southard said. "We've come a long way in developing a plan that actually delivers these services…. We're trying to go as fast as we can."

Over the last few years, "the department has worked with the department of mental health to further improve its mental health service to children," said Louise Grasmehr, spokeswoman for the county Department of Children and Family Services.

Grasmehr cited the establishment of close to 10 hubs throughout the county that medically and psychologically evaluate children entering foster care.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Concerns about foster parents who are in it for the wrong reasons

Current foster care system fails to put children's needs first
Greenberg, Doni. November 17, 2006.

Editor's note: Doni Greenberg is on vacation. In her absence we are running "Best of Doni," columns culled from years past. This column originally appeared Nov. 4, 2005.

Where is a good orphanage when you need one?

This occurred to me again this week as I drove to work and saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk with a young boy tucked beside her. Her cardboard sign said she was homeless. A Redding Police Department car was parked nearby. An officer spoke to her. The boy kept petting the woman's back, like he was the one comforting her, instead of the other way around.

Orphanages came to mind after I interviewed a homeless family a few years ago. The mother and father slept with their five kids in a beat-up station wagon. The mother was pregnant with twins. She shared this information with breath that reeked of alcohol. Her husband was drunk, too. I looked at the kids as they fought over a 2-liter bottle of tepid Pepsi. Those kids did not have a prayer.

Actually, I didn't hatch this orphanage concept alone. A colleague, Maline Hazle, and I came up with it a few years ago, somewhat in jest. It was a way to cope with story upon heartbreaking story about children of deadbeat, abusive, neglectful parents.

Those kids can come to Maline and Doni's orphanage, we'd say. We said our orphanage would be a place where kids' health, safety and welfare pulled more weight than the desires -- and yikes, maybe even rights -- of their very rotten parents.

Our orphanage wouldn't pretend to be a real mom and dad.

It would be a safe, clean, nurturing place with lots of kids in the same boat, run by kind, well-adjusted, well-equipped people.

Our orphanage would be light, immaculate and airy. It would have fresh linens and bedding. Kids would wear shoes and clothing that fit. They'd eat nutritious food, some of which was grown on the premises. Each child would receive a top-notch education that covered the gamut of academia and personal finance to auto repair and cooking.

Children's lives would be enriched by extracurricular activities, like sports, music and art. Our orphanage would have volunteer grandparents and mentors, people who passed background checks and were there for no other reason than to give of themselves.

Upon high school graduation, each child would have a college education available. Most important, the orphanage would be operated by compassionate professionals, not lay foster parents with ulterior motives. Or foster parents who have their own kids at home, because no way, no how can even the most well-intended parent treat foster kids and biological kids equally.

Hold the tomatoes, long-suffering foster parents. I'm sure there are countless examples of genuine, unselfish, loving foster homes. And I'm sure those people went into foster care because they had a burning desire to help a needy child. No strings attached. God bless those people. Every one.

But ideal and reality are miles apart. Recurring newspaper ads that beg for foster parents tell me there's a shortage. This deficiency leaves the field wide open for mediocre foster parents with potentially murky motives.

Maybe they're attracted to foster care because, what the hell, Mabel, we've got a spare room and could sure use the cash. (And by the way, generally speaking, the more screwed up the kid, the higher the payment.) Maybe they're attracted to foster care because they could use a hand around the house, and their flesh-and-blood lawn mowers, dishwashers and pot-scrubbers flew the coop. Maybe they're attracted to foster care to deal with a lifetime of emotional baggage tied up with insecurity and unfulfilled love.

And we haven't even mentioned the kids' issues, from anger and attachment disorders to learning disabilities and depression.

Just a thought.

Doni Greenberg's opinion columns appear Friday and Sunday on the Local page. Her cooking column appears Wednesday in the Food section. She can be reached at 225-8237 or

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Former foster child collects 1000 suitcases for foster children

Youth helps out fellow foster kids
Lee, Dan. Press - Enterprise, Oct. 29, 2006, pg B8.

MORENO VALLEY For his Eagle Scout project, Timothy Buchheit set out to collect 1,000 suitcases and bags for foster children.

He chose this particular project, because, as a foster child himself, he could identify with the pain of being shuffled from one home to another with all his worldly possessions stuffed into a garbage bag.

But never in his wildest dreams did he expect the outpouring of public support in response to his "Suitcases Across America" campaign.

To date, he has collected about 1,500 suitcases and $1,600, which he has used to buy even more bags.

"I was surprised. It was really big," Timothy said of the response.

For Timothy's efforts, Prevent Child Abuse Riverside County will present him with its "Youth Ambassador" award Saturday at a ceremony at the Morongo Casino in Cabazon. He will share the stage with Gov. Schwarzenegger, who also is being honored by the organization that night.

Timothy, who changed his last name from Blankenship after his adoption by his foster family earlier this year, received donations from local service clubs and from individuals from as far away as Temecula and Anaheim.

One Moreno Valley woman even donated her collection of more than 400 Beanie Babies so the foster children could have something extra in their bags, Timothy said.

Roland Buchheit, Timothy's adoptive father, said people had no idea what going through the foster-care system was like before they learned about Timothy's project.

"When they find out, people come out of the woodwork to help," Roland said.

"Americans give a lot."

Timothy has distributed the bags he has collected to a number of foster-family agencies in Southern California. He also donated some to Riverside County's child-protective services.

Ryan Cargando, owner of the Creative Solutions for Kids & Families foster-family agency in Moreno Valley, said he has never seen an individual donate so much to help foster children.

Usually, foster-family agencies solicit donations from corporations, he said.

"It helps the foster children especially when they begin to accumulate things," Cargando said by phone.

Although Timothy knew his project was exceeding his expectations, "I didn't know I was going to meet the governor," he said.

Timothy, 17, is completing his senior year at Vista Del Lago High School and works at a local grocery store. He plans to go to community college for a year, before going on a two-year Latter-day Saints church mission.

He then hopes to earn his college degree and become a forensic photographer, like in the popular TV show "CSI."

And although technically the project is over and he is no longer soliciting donations - he will have his Eagle Scout court of honor in December - he is still receiving and distributing suitcases.

But he hopes the idea will continue and spread nationwide.

"I want to send a letter to Boys Life (scouting magazine)," he said, "and get other scouts to do it."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What progress has been made on this July initiative?

NGA Partners With States On Foster-Care Effort
McNeil, Michele, Education Week; 7/12/2006, Vol. 25 Issue 42, p26-26, 1/9p

Six states will work with the National Governors Association to improve services for youths who leave foster care.

California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina will participate in the NGA'S Policy Academy on Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care, the Washington-based association announced last month.

About half the 20,000 youths who undergo a transition out of foster care each year drop out of high school, the NGA reports.

Top policymakers from the six participating states will spend a year developing strategies and programs to keep those young people in school, and help them combat drug abuse, mental illness, and delinquency.

The NGA'S Center for Best Practices will host meetings and provide staffing to devise those strategies, which will then be shared with foster-care advocates and officials in other states.

Why no state or federal funds for programs like Inspire?

Our Views: Fostering success
The Press - Enterprise. Riverside, Calif.:Sep 11, 2006. p. B06

Turning 18 does not equip teens for self-sufficiency, yet 18 is the age when youths leave foster-care services to live on their own. Thus the vital need for programs like Inspire Life Skills Training, a local organization that helps teens make the difficult transition from foster child to adult.

Corona resident Kristi Camplin founded Inspire a year ago (see www.inspirelifeskills. org). The small nonprofit gives newly emancipated teens a place to live and teaches them skills necessary for success.

Inspire requires the youths to attend college or vocational school, helps them find part-time jobs and gives them training in such basics as cooking and cleaning. Mentors provide guidance, and participants learn to handle money by paying some bills. Currently the program has six young women sharing apartments in Riverside and San Bernardino.

But such aid does not come cheaply. Inspire, which receives no state or federal funds, costs $65,000 a year to operate, and depends on donations and volunteers.

Inspire Life Skills Training and similar programs give former foster children the help that most teens take for granted. Such efforts increase the chances these young people will lead successful, productive lives - a goal certainly worth the public's support.

Renaissance Scholar program at California State University

New program helps foster youth make transition to college living
Michelle Maitre, Oakland Tribune. Oakland, Calif.:Sep 14, 2006. p. 1

Not every college freshman would look forward to living in the dorms all year round, but not every college freshman is like Amanda Joseph.

In foster care since she was 6, Joseph, now 18, doesn't have a traditional home to go to on holiday and summer breaks.

Joseph and 19 other former foster children will find a permanent home at California State University, East Bay, through a new program the campus launched this year to help former foster kids make it through college.

Called Renaissance Scholars, the program provides a custom-built support system for incoming foster youth, offering academic, personal and career counseling, financial assistance, social networking and even emergency funds if needed.

And best of all, student housing will remain open 12 months of the year for them.

"That's a really big deal," Joseph said. "Some of the foster youth are in contact with their parents, but I don't have any parents. It's just me and my siblings, so I really need the housing."

Programs like Renaissance Scholars are cropping up across the state.

Studies suggest that few foster children make it to college. Only about 50 percent of foster youth graduate from high school, according to a December report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C. Of those, only about 20 percent enroll in college, and only 1 to 5 percent eventually earn diplomas, according to various studies.

Without traditional family ties and outside guidance, foster students need extra support in a college environment, said Diana Balgas, the director of campus Academic Student Services and one of the officials who helped spearhead the new program.

"All the departments on campus have been very supportive," said Balgas, who also sought input from former foster youth enrolled at the campus in creating the program.

About 146 former foster kids were enrolled at CSU East Bay last year, according to university figures.

Renaissance Scholars is supported by a $19,000 grant from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, which Balgas hopes will be extended for future years.

Twenty students will inaugurate the program this year, and the campus will accept 10 new Renaissance Scholars into the program each fall.

Donte Rodgers, 18, is among the first crop of Renaissance Scholars. The new freshman expects the program will help him transition into college life when the fall quarter begins Sept. 27.

"I'll have someone to talk to when I need extra assistance," said Rodgers, who spent six years in foster care.

"For most (foster youth), they don't have that outside of school."

Like Vince, foster youth often find it hard to vocalize what they need

Words they've lived by: For children at the Optimist Home, the glass-half-full message of the organization's Creed has been an inspiration through the decades.
Jocelyn Y. Stewart. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.:Oct 21, 2006. p. A.1

Promise yourself ... to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

As boys they saw it hanging from the walls of the dining hall, recited it in unison with other boys, heard it intoned at every special event like a prayer:

Promise yourself ... to think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.

At the 100-year-old Optimist Home in Highland Park, the Optimist Creed has been passed down to generations of wayward kids even if they didn't understand it right then, even if it seemed corny.

The 106-word Creed sums up the worldview of Optimists International, a nonreligious service organization with chapters worldwide. Former President Ford is an Optimist. So was former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Mostly, the members share the view that the glass is half full, that dark clouds have silver linings and that serving community is of value.

Long before there was Aid to Families with Dependent Children or other public assistance, Optimist clubs in Southern California put the force of their beliefs -- and their finances -- behind the boys' home started by Jacob Strickland and his wife on a five-acre chicken farm in 1906.

In advertisements published in this paper early in the last century, the Stricklands proudly offered "Consistent Home Training." After the home opened, writer Christian D. Larson composed the Creed, and it soon became a part of life at the home.

Today the home, the only one of its kind in the U.S. still operated by the Optimists, cares for about 550 youths, including girls, through Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services.

About 100 boys -- referred and paid for by county probation departments -- live on the site of the original home, which now includes a high school. There are six group homes off campus -- including two for girls -- and foster care and adoption services.

Each generation raised at the Optimist Home faced different problems. Their memories vary of who helped them and what impressed them, except for one constant: Even decades later, they remember the Creed.

'The Sunny Side'
Promise yourself ... to look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
When 12-year-old Abe Cooke showed up at the home in 1952, the only thing the farm raised was boys. Gone were the days when founder Strickland -- known as "Pa" or "Uncle Strickland" -- had the boys tending chickens, berries and vegetables.

The home's neighborhood was more urban by the time Cooke arrived, but the family atmosphere had survived. And a family was what he needed. His mother died giving birth to him; his father was a U.S. serviceman who walked away.

He spent his childhood in youth homes and with foster families -- including one in which the mother forced him to hang his head in a toilet for taking a carrot slice from the refrigerator. The Optimist Home was the last stop on that journey.

Cooke recited the Creed and sang "Ave Maria" during the annual Christmas plays held in the barn. He met Optimists who would take him home for Thanksgiving.

He was the only Jewish boy in the home of 60 children. Saul and Sadie Cohen, a Jewish couple who owned a fabric store in the neighborhood and belonged to the Optimists, found a rabbi who gave Cooke a copy of the Torah, recordings for practicing Hebrew and weekly tutorials. Every day for four months, the boy raced home from school and studied, thinking he was headed for a bar mitzvah.

But three weeks before the ceremony, a judge determined that Cooke, a ward of the court, could not go forward with his bar mitzvah plans. It was unprecedented, the judge said, and he was not willing to set a precedent by allowing it.

Even today when he tells the story, it is not with the bitterness of a disappointed 13-year- old denied his heritage, his gifts. He remembers the pride of learning Hebrew -- "I can recite some of it to this day" -- and the kindness of people such as the Cohens, who wanted to give him that gift.

The Optimist Home was the place where life seemed to make amends "for all I had to deal with as a child," he said. "I lived there for five years. 'Most all the kids I grew up with, the ones still alive, we had good times there."

Like every other boy, he learned the Optimist Creed by heart. In 1984 he took the creed -- think only of the best -- to heart.

Rather than dwell on the family he never had, that year he symbolically created one for himself. In court, Cooke changed his name to Abe Schemmer -- after Art and Mary Schemmer, "house parents" who supervised youths in his dorm and showed him kindness he never forgot.

The name change occurred on the Schemmers' wedding anniversary in 1984. For the couple, who had no children of their own, the gesture was a kindness returned.

"We were like a family, the three of us," Schemmer said.

Today he is 65 and retired from a career at Thrifty Drug Stores. The Creed is still with him.
"I have it here on a plaque, right here on a shelf," he said, from his home in Cathedral City. "It's the Ten Commandments."

'Forget the Mistakes'
Promise yourself ... to forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

In the 1960s, divorce was on the rise, and more boys from broken homes were arriving.

Vince was one of them. He had been abandoned by his biological father, beaten by his stepfather and raised by a young, distracted and single mother. He called himself "Little Elvis," so good at impersonating his idol that he could almost forget about discovering himself.

"If I wasn't Little Elvis, who was I?" he said years later.

When he and his mother moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Lake, Vince ran into trouble. A Christmas Eve joy ride in a car he thought belonged to an older boy landed him in juvenile hall.

Vince is Mexican American, and in juvie, he said, he had to act the way the tough Chicano gang boys expected him to act, speak the way they expected him to speak. From juvenile hall, the court sent him to a Catholic boys' home to finish serving his time. When he ran away, a judge decided he might do better at the Optimist Home.

The Optimist Home was a safe place, where the world made sense and nobody expected Vince to be someone he was not. Life had a regimen and an internal logic: up at 6 a.m., in bed early at night, with school, chores and study in between. Recite the Creed. Vince slept in his own bed for the first time -- at home he slept on the couch -- and ate in a dining hall with tablecloths.

There were no racial battles between Mexican boys and African American boys like the ones he saw at juvenile hall, and "nobody was preaching at you, hollering at you," he recalled.

Optimists, men and women, talked to the boys about their lives and plans. There were trips to Dodgers games, camping adventures at Laguna Beach and bus rides full of music.

Even so, he ran away. A few days later, he called the superintendent, Mr. Kroeger, early one morning asking for help.

Driving his trademark brown-and-beige Ford station wagon and looking sleepy, Mr. Kroeger picked him up from Brooklyn and Soto streets. Back in his office, the two sat in silence until Mr. Kroeger began to speak.

Mr. Kroeger took the Creed off the wall and read a line: To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

You know what that means? Mr. Kroeger asked.

Sort of, Vince said.

Just make me one promise. Promise me that you won't run away again.

Vince opened his mouth to promise; instead he started to cry, a 13-year-old's confused tears. Then he made the promise.

But he did run away again, ending up in the California Youth Authority -- the beginning of a lifetime of being raised by the prison system.

He has been out for 16 years now, working as a substance abuse counselor. He is now writing a book about his life. Only by looking back can he explain why he left the home he loved. The home's goal was to reunite him with his family. He couldn't face that, so he ran away, willing to give up one family to escape another.

Now he speaks at high schools and colleges about avoiding the life he has led: "I start by telling them I went in a young guy, just like you, and came out looking like this. I grew old in prison."
It's as if, decades later, he has finally allowed himself to put the Creed's words into action. For Vince, forgetting the mistakes of the past also means leaving behind the surname he used in his youth. That name brings back a violent past he does not want to meet again. For this article, he asked to be identified only as Vince.

Promise yourself ... to give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

By the 1980s, the children in the home faced problems that "Pa" Strickland never could have imagined.

"We're getting more and more kids that are involved in substance abuse ... and more and more kids involved in gangs," said Silvio Orlando, executive director of Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services.

The Optimist Home responded by hiring substance abuse counselors and establishing a foster family agency to find homes. In 1999 it was licensed to provide adoption services. That year it also contracted with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to provide rehab services to youths.

"What we're getting is more and more difficult kids," Orlando said. "Counties don't want to have to send kids to residential institutions. They'll try other kinds of services first, and by the time they get here, they're more damaged."

Roger DeArmond, who showed up at the home in 2000, had attended 15 schools by the time he was in 11th grade.

He never had much good to say about anything or anybody, including himself. He was also a self-proclaimed "pothead," with no one to guide him. When he was 7, his father killed himself while playing Russian roulette. His mother, he said, had other interests.

"My mom -- she uses heroin," DeArmond said. "I ran away from her, basically.... I was basically homeless and I asked my probation officer to put me in a group home, and then she sent me to Optimist."

At the home, he got into fights and twice ran away. The staff told him he had anger issues, problems with women, problems taking orders and problems with substance abuse.

Where fresh air and farm work once sufficed, the home now is a "therapeutic community," where tough youths sit down with music or art therapists.

The Creed is still recited, but five part-time psychiatrists are on staff at the main campus.
Today it costs about $7,000 a month to house a child in the Optimist Home. The state pays $5,600 a month and "as a result we rely on private fundraising to make up that difference," Orlando said.

Nonresidential services are paid for with government contracts and donations from Optimists and others.

"Some might say ... you didn't have art therapy, movement therapy, music therapy before, you didn't have it for 90 years, why have you needed it for the last 10?" Orlando said. "Every kid is different. I think you really need to tailor your program to meet the needs of kids and families, and the more you can offer, the better."

In the past, the home served the child. Now the family -- often part of a child's problems -- is expected to participate.

"Our feeling is you can't just take the kid out of the family ... patch him up and send him to the same environment he came from," Orlando said. "So we tell the families, 'You need to be involved.' "

DeArmond's mother sometimes showed up for the therapy sessions, and for a time she stopped using. Then she relapsed, he said, and stopped attending.

But this time, when she failed him, it was different. It did not crush him. It pushed him. He had to get his own life in order: "I got tired of wanting her attention."

Previously, he attended therapy because he had to. Now DeArmond liked it, embraced it -- and the staff.

"They were like family.... They knew, and I knew, that my mom wasn't coming back."

What hasn't changed about the home, even as it has expanded, Orlando said, is its family atmosphere.

The staff took interest in what interested DeArmond: music -- rock and heavy metal. They encouraged him to play his guitar.

Like every other boy at the home, DeArmond ate in front of the Creed, spoke it at the appropriate times. But he never "got into it," he said. It sounded like "some goofy stuff, like on television."

But for the first time in his life, he was getting straight A's. He went long stretches without being disciplined for cursing or fighting or not doing chores.

After two years at the Optimist Home, DeArmond became a youth advocate for the city of Pasadena, helping youths moving from foster care. Now he works for Los Angeles County's procurement office.

He still visits the Optimist Home. "I can go over there and eat and do my laundry," he said. "Everybody knows me. They're really happy for me and everything."

His mother once again tried to return to his life, but DeArmond made a decision. "I eventually told her to leave me alone. Let me do my thing."

This time, his thing was a good thing -- give so much time to the improvement of yourself....

This time his outlook was optimistic.

The Optimist Creed
Promise Yourself --
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

12,000 California foster youth are housed in group homes

California Alliance of Child and Family Services wins right to trial on behalf of California's most vulnerable children in group homes
California Alliance press release, Nov. 1, 2006.

SAN FRANCISCO-- A federal court in California ruled on Friday, October 27, 2006 that the California Alliance of Child and Family Services (the Alliance), a statewide association of private, nonprofit accredited human services agencies, has the right to sue the state of California as the caretakers for approximately 12,000 vulnerable children in group homes.

Defendants in the case include The California Department of Social Services Interim Director Cliff Allenby and the Children and Family Services Division of The California Department of Social Services Deputy Director Mary Ault.

The suit charges that California has failed to comply with the federal Child Welfare Act by setting group home rates that fail to cover the actual costs of providing round-the-clock care for children and youth who require specialized and constant care and supervision.

As a result of inadequate payment, quality group homes are closing down and qualified staff are leaving for jobs that pay a living wage. The starting wage built into group home rates for entry level child care workers is $7.83 per hour and those rates have not changed since 2002.

If the Alliance prevails in the litigation, much of the additional revenue will go to recruiting and retaining skilled and qualified staff to work with children in group homes.

"Perhaps the single most important ingredient in successful foster care is the foster child's relationship with a committed caring adult," says Carroll Schroeder, Executive Director of the Alliance. "Under the current rates, group homes cannot begin to recruit and retain the necessary skilled staff, and it is the kids who suffer as a result."

In denying the state's motion to dismiss the case, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel's ruling affirms the Alliance's right to bring suit under the federal Child Welfare Act on behalf of its member agencies and the children they serve.

The State, through the California Department of Social Services (DSS), is responsible for complying with the federal Child Welfare Act's mandated factors in setting rates for foster care payments to child care institutions.

Payments are supposed to cover the basics of caring for foster children and youth: food, clothing, shelter, supervision, school supplies, incidentals and insurance, as well as the reasonable costs of operating group homes that provide these services.

The DSS's methodology for calculating payment rates to foster care group homes is based on the complicated, outdated Rate Classification Level (RCL) system which relies on points earned by the group home through the number of "paid/awake" hours worked per child, per month and the qualifications of the staff.

Foster caregivers, including group homes, have not received cost of living rate increases in 11 of the past 15 years, have received zero increases since 2001-2002, and will receive none next year. The Alliance's member agencies have privately fundraised to make ends meet and fulfill the state's obligation to provide quality services to improve the lives of foster children and youth.

Now at a point of crisis and having exhausted every available recourse, the Alliance is suing the state to come into compliance with Federal law and cover the cost of care.

The Alliance is represented in this case on a pro bono basis by William F. Abrams and Roxanne Torabian-Bashardoust of Bingham McCutchen LLP in Silicon Valley.

Abrams, a partner at Bingham and faculty member at Stanford University, said "this decision confirms that the Alliance can proceed to enforce the rights of group foster homes to receive funding as required under Federal law. We think this is a sound decision and look forward to pursuing resolution of this issue so that the foster children will obtain the full benefits that Congress intended."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Supportive network for emancipated foster youth makes the difference

Safety net for ex-foster kids
By Truong Phuoc Khánh
Mercury News

At 2, he was removed from the custody of his mother, a drug addict. At 17, he became a father. At 18, he was emancipated from the foster care system, homeless, a ward of no one.

Daniel Bell's story might have ended disastrously except that he now has a network that wraps him in a blanket of supportive services, including a house that shelters him and mentors who motivate him every day to be a better man.

On Monday, Unity Place Apartments opens with great expectations in San Jose, the first 24 units in Santa Clara County dedicated exclusively to young adults like Bell, 19, who have ``aged out'' of foster care.

It is a hidden population with abysmal statistics: Up to 40 percent statewide are homeless; 20 percent are incarcerated; 51 percent are unemployed.

As Andre Chapman, executive director of Unity Care Group, likes to say of the state's broken foster care system: "We give them a `Get-into-Jail-Free' card when they walk out our door.''

Unity Care works with at-risk youth to provide everything from one-on-one therapy to job training skills. The non-profit agency acquired and renovated the apartments with city and county funds and a small bank loan. The total project cost $2 million, with $1.6 million from the city.

``Without housing, they don't have that sense of stability where they can begin to get a job or go to school,'' Chapman said. ``Without a roof over their head they can call home, they have no ability to transition to independence.''

Community groups like Unity Care are finally starting to get meaningful state support. This year, California legislators more than tripled the budget for affordable housing and supportive services for homeless former foster youth, from $1.3 million to $4.8 million. Proposition 1C on the November ballot would provide $50 million for programs for foster youth left homeless.

Also, counties and cities are allocating millions of dollars for agencies to acquire properties to house emancipating youth on a permanent basis. The city of Santa Clara gave the Bill Wilson Center $3.5 million to purchase a 28-unit complex, and San Mateo County is working out the details with the city of South San Francisco to secure an apartment building.

80,000 in the system
California has more than 80,000 youths in foster care with about 4,000 turning 18 each year. That's when the state stops payments to foster families and to agencies that have served as surrogate parents. At 18, kids become adults overnight and are cut loose from the system.

"The transition can be very stark,'' said Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes. ``We put all their belongings in a big black garbage bag and wish them well. It's not even good economic policy.''

One widely cited statistic puts as many as 50 percent of former foster youth becoming homeless within the first 18 months of emancipation.

Bell was living that statistic.

"It was a nightmare,'' he said. "I'm a person that likes to be clean, but I couldn't. I had nowhere to take a shower.''

Born in East Palo Alto to a drug-addicted mother, Bell and his older brother were taken in by Jennie and Edward White, a retired couple who lived in Seaside, near Monterey.

"They raised me my whole life. I love them with my whole heart,'' Bell said. "They taught me so well, I never even put a cigarette to my mouth.''

But then, at 17, he got his girlfriend pregnant.

"I was young,'' Bell said. "People make mistakes in life.''

The Whites asked him to move out.

"I couldn't raise a father,'' Jennie White, 66, said. ``He had just grown into manhood and I wasn't ready to deal with that. It's hard to tell a grown person what to do or what not to do when he was already a father.''

Bell moved into a group home in San Francisco. When he turned 18 in April of 2005, he stopped being a ward of the state. What followed was a period of ``couch-surfing,'' from sofa to sofa in different friends' homes.

Time of transition
Eventually, Bell landed in San Jose with Unity Care this spring. Because he was homeless, he was eligible to stay at one of its transitional group homes, sharing a three-bedroom house with four other young men. A requirement was that he find work, which he did as a basketball coach at Luther Burbank School in San Jose. He pays $326 of his income toward rent. He attends community college.

Now Bell is eager for an apartment of his own. Unity's transitional homes have a maximum two-year-stay restriction, while Unity's new apartments -- and those being developed in San Mateo County and Santa Clara -- are meant to be more permanent, which isn't to say forever.

"We help them get on their feet, get more education and a higher paying job,'' said Monalisa DiAngelo of Unity Care. The whole goal is to ``move them out and bring in other kids.''

At Unity Place, Bell will pay rent on a sliding scale, from $250 to $500 a month. He will continue to meet with the counselors who have been mentoring him.

"They're like older brothers to me,'' Bell said. ``Every day I mess up; every day they give me a little speech to motivate me.''

Eventually, Bell would like to live in a place that can accommodate his girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter, whom they named Desteny Nicole Bell.

No housing and little support for California foster youth aging out of care

Editorial: Foster care's future
San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 2, 2006, pg B8.

CALIFORNIA HAS come a long way this year in reforming foster care for more than 75,000 youths. But where do these young adults go when aid drops away at 18 years of age?

There is no housing and little support when these juveniles "emancipate'' to legal adulthood. It's a problem that produces homelessness, desperation and crime. Former foster-care youths are prone to jail and life on the streets at a far greater rate than others the same age.

A solution is contained in Proposition 1C, a $2.85 billion housing bond on the ballot next week. Within this package is $50 million in subsidies to developers who will include housing tabbed for former foster-care youths.

These units most likely will be slipped into larger projects aimed at, say, seniors, middle- or low-income families and the disabled -- all groups hit hard by high housing costs.

The idea is to integrate former foster youths into a broader world. These larger housing complexes would also be expected to offer job and educational counseling to help emancipated youths move ahead in life.

With foster care, there's a context to this story.

A bipartisan push succeeded in producing eight foster-care reforms signed into law this year. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved the package sent to him by the Legislature. Local lawmakers, including Assemblyman Mark Leno and former state Sen. John Burton, pushed for the changes and money to help make things work. GOP legislators also played a serious role in rewriting state laws that require county and state bureaucracies to talk to each other, a major problem in the past.

The $50 million in foster-care housing could produce 495 units, and plans call for distributing the money across the state. While the money won't entirely solve the problem of post-foster-care housing, it will make a difference in hundreds of lives.