Monday, April 16, 2007

Siblings separated in foster care are reunited at this event

Siblings in foster care get a day together
Brothers and sisters ecstatically reunite at event, some after months apart.
Slaby, Margaret. Fresno Bee, April 15, 2007.

The Department of Children and Family Services and Aspira Foster and Family Services hosted a Sibling Spring Fling for brothers and sisters who have been separated by foster care and probation placement. These two siblings had not seen each other for eight months because they are living in different cities.

The sun was hidden behind clouds, but smiles brightened Woodward Park on Saturday as brothers and sisters who hadn't seen each other in months were reunited.

One brother and sister, who have lived in separate foster homes for about eight years, were so happy to be together that they couldn't stop hugging.

"We're so close," said the 15-year-old girl. "I miss hanging out with him, giving him hugs and having someone who looks up to you."

She and her 12-year-old brother live in different cities, and it was the first time they had laid eyes on each other in eight months, even though they talk on the phone daily.

The Fresno County Department of Children and Family Services asked that the children not be named. About 35 foster children ages 9 to 18 gathered for the Sibling Spring Fling, an effort to address a problem common in the foster-care system.

"The unfortunate part of our business is we can't always keep all these kids together,"
said Cathi Huerta, the department's interim director.

"At an event like this, we can bring them together -- even if it's only for an afternoon."

Aspira Foster and Family Services, a nonprofit agency, also helped organize the reunion. According to the Aspira Web site, 54,302 children in foster care in California have siblings, and one-third of them are separated.

One of the biggest challenges in keeping siblings together is trying to find foster homes that are big enough, said Samantha LaGrasse, a social work supervisor with the Fresno Aspira office.

"Sometimes there's just not enough bed space," she said.

The California Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Division regulates foster care.

One regulation mandates only two children per bedroom, and those children must be within 5 years in age.

Another challenge is finding foster families willing to take large groups of siblings.

Rebeca Pessoa, 13, one of about 35 volunteers at the event, said she couldn't imagine being separated from her two older siblings.

"If they're not there, I get bored," said Rebeca, whose sister, Cecilia, 14, also helped at the event. "Sometimes foster kids don't get to see their siblings, so this is really good. This is a whole day they can spend with their family."

Rebeca was one of five members of Girl Scout Troop 4841 that troop leader Vickie Klassen, also a social worker, brought to the spring fling. Troop members arrived at 9 a.m. to organize food and drinks.

Lara Yrigollen, 14, Victoria Paynter, 12, and Rebekah Olson, 12, said they came simply to help the foster children.

Two of those foster children -- an 11-year-old boy and his sister, who turns 12 this month -- kept teasing each other and grinning.

The two were placed in separate foster homes about a year ago; they see each other once a month.

"I haven't seen him since last month and wanted to see him," said the sister.

The event was held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. as part of the Sibling Connection Initiative. Aspira created the initiative in 2005 to provide year-round opportunities for siblings to get together, as well as to increase community awareness. Aspira provides foster care and adoption services throughout the state.

Funding for the event came from several sources, including grant money from the California Connected by 25 Initiative, said Lisa Nichols, initiative coordinator for Fresno County. The initiative's goal is to help with the transition from foster care to adulthood.

The spring fling included food, music by Central Valley Mobile DJ, face painting, bingo and a bounce house. There also were activities to strengthen family ties, such as a "get to know your sibling" questionnaire and bracelet-making.

To help children stay connected, goodie bags were handed out with stationery, envelopes, stamps, pens and photo frames and albums. Volunteers took photos that were given to children before they left.

"This is for siblings who don't have the chance to have fun growing up together like we did," said Caroline Avila, who recruits foster parents for the Fresno Aspira office and helped organize the event. "This means everything to them."