Thursday, August 30, 2007

Rita Gomex speaks out for foster children who have been 'left behind'

Foster care system needs to be fixed
Contra Costa Times, August 29, 2007.

I recently met a young woman with a beautiful smile and a pleasant personality.

She is barely 18-years-old and is about four to five months pregnant. You would never know by talking to her that she was recently released from foster care.

I've been praying for some answers, and then on Aug. 10, I read Sara Steffens' article, "Fixes to foster care urged." The article mentions the legislation California Sen. Barbara Boxer has introduced, S.1512, and that former state Sen. John Burton is "urging bar association members to throw their weight behind the bill."

I urge the Times to continue to inform us community members of what we can do to fight for these foster-care children.

I feel the current foster-care system failed the above-mentioned young woman. She was released without finishing high school, pregnant and with no job skills.

Fortunately, she has an extended family that is trying to help. However, does that family have the tools needed to help her and her baby? What about the No Child Left Behind Act? What happens to these foster care children that are left behind?

Tell us what we can do to make sure this legislation gets passed!

Rita Gomez

Monday, August 27, 2007

Mrs. International works with Heart Gallery of America -- her mom is a foster care alumna

Pageant winner helps children
Lakewood's Mrs. International raises awareness about adoption, foster care

Pringle, Adam. Long Beach Press, August 26, 2007.

Although pageants often have a reputation of focusing on superficiality, recent Mrs. International winner Rebekah Negrete has more noble intentions.

The 32-year-old Lakewood native, who was awarded the Mrs. International title in July, is using her crown to raise awareness about adoption and foster care.

She is working with the Heart Gallery of America, a nonprofit organization that presents photos and biographies of children in foster care so they can be considered for adoption.

"I don't need a title to continue to volunteer, since I would be doing that no matter what," she said. "But it helps open up more doors than if I was just going as Rebekah Negrete."

Negrete describes herself as a "generational byproduct" of the foster care system, because her mother was a foster child and her parents had different foster children in their home.

Her sister adopted a child three years ago, and now she and her husband are looking to start their family through the foster care system.

"Early on, I saw the importance of making sure that we take care of these kids that need families, too," she said.

Negrete currently works on the board of directors for the Heart Gallery chapter in Los Angeles, and she is preparing to travel around the country and eventually worldwide to promote the Heart Gallery's efforts in helping children find foster homes.

"Everywhere I go, I try to put Heart Gallery out there so that more people are aware that it's there, and hopefully it will bring more exposure to these kids that need to be placed in homes," she said.

Negrete participated in a number of pageants beginning when she was 18, including numerous Miss America pageants, and she saw the Mrs. International pageant as a perfect opportunity to promote her cause.

"I knew that since this pageant is really concerned about trying to help a woman promote her platform, this would be more up my alley than a pageant more focused on beauty,"
she said.

According to the Mrs. International Web site, the pageant was developed to "promote today's married women, their accomplishments, and commitment to family and marriage."

Despite her newly awarded status as Mrs. International, life hasn't changed much for Negrete: She still lives in Lakewood, where she continues to work as a children's etiquette teacher.

Eventually, she wants to see more Heart Gallery chapters established nationwide, and she is helping establish a Heart Gallery in Fresno County. She is also looking to help foster children in her community in the near future.

"While I may not meet these children face-to-face, I'll know that I had a part in helping them find permanent homes," she said. "That's a very satisfying thing for me."

On the Net:

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Foster care success story

Who Asked Us? The History of My G.P.A. (Gradual Pursuit of Academics)
New America Media, Commentary, Lanette Scott, Posted: Aug 14, 2007

Editor’s Note: California’s foster care system is often criticized for separating families and placing fragile young people in uncaring environments. One young writer, however, credits her foster family with helping her develop self-confidence and an appreciation for the value of education. Lanette Scott, 24, is a contributor to New America Media.

SAN FRANCISCO -- As a young child, my mother and I would stay in rundown motels where rats, so huge as to be indistinguishable from cats, emerged from holes in the wall in search of food in the trash cans. I remember crying myself to sleep each night because I wanted out of this environment. I was seven years old. The neglect and isolation that I experienced during these years should have slated me for failure. But ultimately, through my later experience as a foster child, I was able to overcome my self-doubt and learned to value myself and my education.

Some may use school as a way to escape the drudgeries of home; however, this was never the case for me. The thought of being in a classroom where students would tease me and ridicule my requests for academic assistance was terrifying. Whenever I was asked to read aloud, shame would rush over my body like an ocean wave. My thoughts would become numb as I withdrew inside myself with the hope of becoming invisible. My teachers were unable to recognize that I was in need of more focused attention. For many years I rarely attended school, both because of my living situation, as well as my growing anxieties about my academic abilities.

My maternal grandmother finally reported my mother to Social Services. I was sent to live with her. However, she was soon after diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I was sent to live with my first foster caregiver who abused me mentally. She would mock my requests for help with class assignments and would often call me “stupid” and “lazy,” which gave rise to insecurity and self-hate. At my request, my social workers eventually placed me back with my maternal grandmother, but I was soon taken away again because of frequent school absences.

I was then placed with my paternal grandmother, but she was verbally abusive towards me and I ran away. I spent the following nights in a cluster of bushes about six miles away, curled up in a fetal position. When the police found me I was returned to the foster care system. I was 11 years old, and I felt alone, confused, scared and dejected. I was overwhelmed with sadness all the time and rarely smiled. It was impossible for me to see hope for my future. I felt like society’s throwaway.

Because of the continual interruption of my formative education, my academic ability was well below average. My reading and comprehension abilities were nonexistent, because I was not attending school on a consistent basis. I did not complete a full grade level until the seventh grade, yet each year I was promoted to the next grade.

It was when I arrived at my second foster home that my life began to change. My foster mother’s daughter asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied, “A lawyer, then senator, then President of the United States.”

She then asked, “What is your G.P.A?” I was clueless so I replied, “What’s that?” After explaining what a G.P.A was, rather than mock me, she said, “Well, we certainly have a lot of work to do to get you there…” At that moment, I felt safe, cared for, respected, and important.

I was also immediately embraced by my foster mother. She enrolled me in Sylvan Learning Center, and I was given tests to determine my reading comprehension abilities. The tests reveled that I had the reading ability of a third-grader. Sylvan was a good opportunity; however, my foster mother could not afford any more than a few sessions. I was almost certain I would not be able to keep up with high school classes because I was so behind. My foster mother told me: “Learn what you can now, and learn what you missed later.” I did just that, and I was able to excel in my classes.

The positive feedback I received from my foster mother helped me to realize my potential, and I was motivated to achieve academically. I became involved in many extra-curricular programs including The Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) designed to enhance my academic performance and increase my class standing. Through ATDP, I attended a summer program at the University of California, Berkeley.

For three summers, I studied social science, marine biology, and law. I chose to be involved in this program because I wanted to further develop my verbal, social, and analytical skills. Attending college seemed to be an unrealistic goal because of my past. However, I was accepted to the University of San Francisco.

I am now an advocate for youth in the foster care system, and am thriving both academically and socially at USF. I have joined several youth advocacy boards such as the California Youth Connection (CYC), and Emancipated Youth Advocacy Board (EYAB). Being a part of these boards has enabled me to raise public awareness of situations current and former foster youth are subjected to.

My experiences have helped me shape my education. I traveled and studied abroad in South Africa where I counseled street children. I traveled the Eastern Cape working with street children who suffered from HIV and AIDS. I witnessed first hand the amazing grace these youths possessed in spite of their hardships. I was able to build relationships by embracing the street children with love and attention.

My experience as a foster child has taught me the value and importance of being available to others. It has allowed me to form bonds of trust with these youth and get them to open up. And I was able to inspire them by sharing my own story of choosing a different path, and not letting my past predict my future.

Had I not been placed in foster care, the idea of attending college would have remained only a thought. I was once a child who suffered from self-loathing. Now, I am a college student with a strong sense of self and dreams for the future.

ABA gets behind foster youth

Cassell, Heather. Bay Area Reporters, August 16, 2007.

Outgoing American Bar Association President Karen J. Mathis, center, listens as Jessalynn Castaneda, left, recounts her experiences in the foster children program. Another former foster child, Cherese Cronin, right, looks on. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The American Bar Association House of Delegates passed a resolution Monday, August 13 to encourage the federal government and legal professionals to provide comprehensive services to help the estimated 20,000 youths leaving the nation's foster care system – 4,000 of those young people live in California – to succeed.

As part of the ABA's annual convention, which took place in San Francisco this past week, members voted on comprehensive reforms to empower foster youths, agencies, and courts to assist the young people with their transition into adulthood. The reforms call for changes in federal laws to allow access to financial resources; health and education information necessary to provide an assortment of assistance by agencies, judges, and advocates; and services to foster care youths who legally become adults at the age of 18 and are released from the foster care system.

"I'm very happy that the ABA is out in front on this issue," said Karen Mathis, outgoing president of the ABA, at a news conference hosted by Larkin Street Youth Services on August 9. "Every child who is placed in foster care deserves to have a safe environment [and] a healthy environment – one that cherishes them as an individual whatever their lifestyle is."

An estimated 10 percent of youths who "age out" of the foster care system identify as LGBT, according to a report, "Youth in the Margins," published in 2001 by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations.

"We believe that special attention needs to be given to this subset of foster care youth," said Mathis, who plans to continue work as the liaison to the ABA's youth at risk commission. Mathis also plans to request that the ABA House of Delegates look into LGBT foster youth issues.

"We have to protect our young and their sexual orientation should not make any difference about whether we are protecting them and giving them a thriving home life, community life, [and] educational life," said Mathis.

Mathis was joined at the news conference by former state Senator John Burton, who founded the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes; Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services; Will A. Gunn, chair-elect, ABA commission on youth at risk; Susan Weiss, with Casey Family Programs; Sophia Isom, program manager of the city's Department of Children and Family Services; and Cherese Cronin, 18, and Jessalynn Castaneda, 20, former foster care youths, who are both straight.

According to the ABA, 20 percent of former foster youths become homeless at some point, one in three live in poverty, one in four are incarcerated within two years after leaving the system, and one-third to one-half of these youths have significant mental health disorders within five years of leaving the system.

"I don't know anyone who I grew up with, unless they got married out of high school or went into the service, who left home at 18," said Burton.

According to Adams, Larkin Street assists up to 491 former foster youth out of 3,000 youths annually, about 900 of those youths identify as LGBT. Larkin Street provides an assortment of housing and support services to assist homeless and former foster care youths.

"Without the kinds of support that programs Larkin Street can offer ... the chances for successes making that transition are very slim," said Adams.