Sunday, May 27, 2007

Foster mother is reunited with a member of the sibling group she took in

A call for more foster parents
Forum highlights challenges, rewards

Hoffman, Natalie. Napa Vallet Register, May 26, 2007.

Peggy Smith was ready to add one daughter to her family — at least for a little while — but she ended up with three.

Six years ago, Smith got a call from a Napa County Child Protective Services worker who told her three sisters taken out of their home needed a place to stay.

“They wanted to know if I could take one of them,” Smith said. When Smith arrived at CPS, she saw the three huddled together on a social worker’s office couch, and she didn’t want to break them up. She got special permission to take two, but as she was driving them to her home, she turned around. Could she take them all?

Make a difference
Napa County is home to 96 of California’s approximately 80,000 foster care children. To become a foster parent or a licensed respite care provider, contact the Napa County Department of Foster Care Services at 253-4761.

Eventually, Smith, 47, got the OK to take all three children home, where she housed and cared for them for one week.

Three weeks ago, Smith heard a knock on her door and opened it to find a beautiful teenager.

“Peggy, do you remember me?” the girl said.

Smith apologized and said no.

“You took me and my two sisters in. I was waiting to get into high school so I could walk over here and say hi.”

Smith, who has been a foster parent for 11 years, said she never knows how long she will have a foster child, and it always is difficult to see them go.

“There is a risk in loving them,” she said.

Smith’s story — and the concerns of five other panelists — were heard by an audience of about 70 people at a Napa County Foster Care Forum early Thursday evening, where guests discussed challenges and issues surrounding the foster care system.

Linda Canan of Napa County Child Welfare Services said there are 96 foster children in Napa County — more boys than girls. The biological families of these children are often shattered by alcohol and drug abuse, she said.

Canan said when children are taken out of their homes, it is best if they can be kept with their siblings and placed with relatives or extended family. Children often do better, she said, when cared for by someone familiar; being close to their school and friends is also ideal. If no family members are available, she said, children go to county-licensed foster homes.

Canan said Napa needs more foster parents, adding that local foster parents need more support groups and licensed respite care providers. Respite providers care temporarily for foster children, enabling foster parents to take occasional reprieves.

An advocate for both foster parents and foster children, Canan also expressed the need for more support and guidance systems for emancipated foster youth, who often face multiple personal challenges. To assist these young adults, Canan encouraged local businesses to create job opportunities for them.

Barry Feinberg, an expert on kinship care — grandparents raising their grandchildren — said one third of local foster care children are living with grandparents; he advocates increasing funds for these caregivers.

Brian Cahill, executive director of Catholic Charities in San Francisco, said social workers should continue to use caution when determining when to put children in foster care, adding that historically, children from poor families are more likely to be put into foster care than children of more affluent families.

Cahill also explored the ever-present tug-of-war between family privacy and government intrusion. Some abusive parents, he said, feel only they know what’s best for their children.

“Until about 1912, a child was a piece of property. Those residual conflicts are still there.”

Because some foster youth face so many personal issues, Cahill said, legislation is necessary to create service systems which address multiple problems, including neglect, disabilities and drug and alcohol abuse.

Jim Asbury, a Napa businessman and chairman of Foster Care Advocates, said Thursday’s forum helped to bring more public awareness to the issues of foster care. He echoed panelists’ concerns, including the need for more mentors for foster children, additional funding for foster care providers and respite care for foster parents.


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