Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fostering children as an act of faith

Foster care gets help from the faithful
Kearney, Laila. Inside Bay Area, March 26, 2008.

Oakland resident Harold Fortner never thought about taking in a foster child until he learned the shocking number of displaced youth in his community from a church meeting.

The Fortner household is one of more than 100 foster and adoptive homes licensed in the past two years as a result of the Faith Initiative. The initiative was put together by the Alameda County Social Services Agency and the faith community to help abused and neglected children find homes, a plan that other Bay Area counties have begun to model.

"It really is a holistic approach," Alameda County Social Services Agency spokeswoman Sylvia Soublet said of the Faith Initiative. "It isn't just one-dimensional." As part of the initiative, the Faith Advisory Council, a collection of religious leaders, meets once a month at different churches, synagogues, mosques and Buddhist temples and educates the community about how to help abused and neglected children.

"We get together a plan to do outreach for the community to get involved," said the Rev. Raymond Lankford, head of the Faith Council and pastor at Voices of Hope Community Church in Oakland.

Since September 2006, the council has visited more than 125 churches throughout Alameda County.

Fortner said he didn't realize the great need for foster families until the council visited his church, the Liberty Bell Missionary Baptist Church in Berkeley.

"I don't think people realize how many children are in the foster system," said Fortner, who fosters one child, a boy.

About two years ago, Alameda County was in the midst of a child welfare crisis, officials said, with many abused and neglected children unable to find homes.

"We were literally having to place kids in group homes, because we didn't have enough beds in foster homes," Soublet said.

From the early 1990s to 2006, licensed foster homes in the county dropped from a high of 1,000 to 400.

The agency asked University of California, Berkeley, School of Social Welfare to survey current and former foster parents to determine reasons for the drop off. The survey found that many among the aging demographic of foster parents wanted to retire from caring for children. Foster parents also felt they did not receive enough financial support from the foster care system.

Financial support per household varies by the age of the child, said Carol Collins, assistant director of Alameda County Child and Family Services. The basic rate is about $400 a month for infants, increasing to about $600 per month for teenagers. The program also covers foster children's medical care.

The Alameda County Social Services Agency thought religious organizations could help place local children in need of homes. The Faith Initiative began in 2005 with 15 groups. Today, 163 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist groups are involved.

"People have come together regardless of ideologies," Soublet said.

At the start of the initiative, Alameda County Social Services was recruiting about 20 new licensed foster parents a year. In the past two years, 146 homes in the area have been licensed.

"We still have a long way to go," Soublet said. The goal of the initiative is to license 400 homes by June 2009.

Still, Soublet said the Social Services Agency tries to keep children with their biological families: "This is a system of last resort."

The number of children in foster care has decreased from about 5,000 seven years ago, to about 2,400 today, officials said.

Soublet said her agency has worked to help children stay with their relatives and out of foster care.

For the abused and neglected, who cannot return to their biological families, Lankford hopes a home awaits.

"We're just looking for people who can care for children, who love children and who want them to live better lives." said Lankford, also a former foster parent. "You can be rich, or you can be poor, but you have to have space in your home."

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