Monday, February 12, 2007

Foster mother attends law school, while nurturing the children in her care

On duty for kids, 24 hours a day
Vo, Kim. Mercury News, Feb. 12,2007.

With her 22-month old foster child never far from her, longtime child advocate Lois Rapp works in the office of Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting (LAPP), where she serves as a senior lawyer for the non-profit organization.

After decades of caring for AIDS babies, shaken babies and traumatized teens, Lois Raap's husband encouraged the longtime foster mom to do something for herself. She wanted nights off -- to attend law school.

It almost didn't happen. The Los Gatos woman thought she could continue caring for only one foster child while studying. Then, the phone rang. Another child needed special care. Authorities suspected abuse. Could she help?

Raap reconsidered the dream. After all, at 49 it wasn't like she would launch a hot-shot legal career or ascend to the Supreme Court.

"What's really important here?'' she asked herself.

She thought hard -- and, in her take-charge way, decided to do both.

She laughs about it now, sitting in her dinky San Mateo office with its stacks of legal papers and a laundry basket of toys. Though it's a work day, Raap has brought in her latest charge, a toddler with spina bifida and an enormous grin.

"I'm an eternal optimist,'' she said.

Raap knew that going to law school would work out. She watched the kids in the daytime, made dinner, then left for class while her husband, Peter, took over. She read case law at Great America, sitting on amusement park benches while kids whooshed on roller coasters overhead. She wrote papers in various waiting rooms while she took her foster children to innumerable appointments.

By 2000, the year she was supposed to graduate from Northwestern California University School of Law, she had five foster children and a daughter getting married. So she extended her studies another year.

To Raap, it was nothing extraordinary. The daughter of a Calvinist pastor carries a sense of righteousness and duty. Many people have it bad in this world, she says, and those who don't should do what they can.

It's that attitude that helped Raap win a Ruth Massinga Award, administrated by the national advocacy group Casey Family Program. Raap recently won the award, which honors those who work with foster children, advocate to improve the child welfare system and "who can always be counted on to contribute.''

"She's an extraordinary person,'' said Regina Deihl, who works with Raap at Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting. "She has for many, many years taken the children no one else would take, the children other people had given up on.''

According to Deihl, Raap sees the unique potential of each child and then declares, "We've got work to do here. Let's hop to it.''

Raap, now 60, wields her law degree like a sword. She helps write new legislation for foster parents, who she feels are not granted enough respect or rights. She takes on private clients, helping parents get services for special-education kids.

"I go ballistic. I know no one's speaking for those kids. I know I'm more expressive, more forthright than any of these kids.''

Her fierce advocacy has won her fans and probably detractors.

"Lois Raap is the high, high end of all the foster parents I've ever encountered,'' said former judge Len Edwards, who presided over Santa Clara County's Juvenile Dependency Court for 21 years before retiring last year.

Unlike many foster parents, he said, Raap regularly attended court hearings, even wrote her own detailed reports.

"She's an inspiration to all of us. When she'd come to court we'd all be on our toes because she'd ask -- demand -- extra care for the children,'' Edwards said. He acknowledged that some could interpret her demanding style as an ``irritant.''

That might explain why the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency initially declined comment when told that a county resident had won a national award. After nearly a week, the director of the Department of Family and Children's Services issued this wispy praise:

"The Raaps have been foster parents in the county for a number of years. The Department appreciates the efforts of all our resource families, and we are grateful for how much they give of themselves to care for our dependent children.''

Kids first

Raap shrugs it off. What matters, she says, is the kids, especially the ones who need extra care. The key for such children, she said, is to crawl into their mind, see how the world looks and jimmy the system accordingly.

And Raap, a former special education teacher, finds ingenious routes into a child's thinking. She remembered one brain-damaged child with a wry sense of humor. At sixth grade, he still couldn't read and eventually refused to pick up a book.

No books, she promised, and then copied "Amelia Bedelia'' onto flashcards. They read the cards, day after day. Eventually, she slipped him the actual book. To his astonishment, he could read it.

"I love challenges,'' she said. "I love the game.''

Law offers the same rush. So can Monopoly, but she tends to avoid it. "I don't play board games,'' she said, giggling, "because I'm way too mean.''

In it for long haul

Mean is not what comes to mind sitting in Raap's office, where the conversation stops every five minutes. The toddler in her care, a sprite with a big red bow, keeps tugging on Raap's arm. The girl wants food. Eggs. Now pears! In the chair. Out of the chair. Peek-a-boo!

Each time, Raap stops talking, answers and plays with the girl, then resumes the conversation. She never forgets where she left off.

This is her "bonus baby,'' a child she's delighted with and initially was surprised is still with her, months after birth. It seems no one wanted to adopt a sick baby. (The child's name is being withheld because she's in foster care.)

Raap knows this happens. She cared for HIV-positive babies when fear of the disease was so high that they were shunned at day care and churches. She's gotten calls on Thanksgiving, a house already full of kids, with the county needing to bring another by because no one would take her.

Then there was the Mercury News profile of her in 1996. She had hoped it would recruit sorely needed foster parents, but the first 10 calls were from animal lovers. Beagles were in one of the photos and people wanted to know where they could get the pups.

Once a child comes into her home, Raap's in for the long haul, until the child is adopted or reunited with biological parents.

Sometimes, the kids stay. Raap, who has two biological children and one adopted daughter, has had three children simply decide to live with her until they turned 18, and sometimes beyond.

"If you provide a home for a child and the kid decides your home is the forever home, you have no choice,'' she said. "You care for that child.''

Formula for success

Nathaniel Gray was such a child. His mother was suspected of having Munchausen by Proxy, a disorder in which people fabricate illnesses in their children to get attention. Gray showed up at age 13, and eventually said he wasn't leaving.

The Raaps "were encouraging independence, while being dependent on Jesus, which is cool,'' said Gray, now 22. Despite a seizure disorder, he's at college now; he won't say where so his biological mother can't find him. He still calls the Raaps regularly, and it's their home he returns to on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Raaps, he said, taught him to stand up for himself while helping others. That prompted him to intervene at his new school, where some disabled students were teasing the more severely disabled ones.

"So I tell them they don't have to like each other,'' he said, ``but they have to show respect.''

Raap doesn't know how many children she's cared for over the years. She measures her success on people like Gray, who arrived depressed, recovering from a surgery to help him walk and now cooks his own dinner, navigates buses and trains, and attends college.

And it's what she may do for this latest child. For Raap, it comes back to that essential question she asked herself when debating law school.

"What's really important here?''

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