Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Emancipation Village sounds cool...

Faces of Foster Care
Foster children are center of focus in photo exhibit
Molloy, Alex. March 7, 2008.

OAKLAND - GONE ARE the stoic mug shots of the past, where an orphaned child stared vacantly at the lens.

The Bay Area Heart Gallery is taking a different approach in recruiting adoptive parents by using professional photographers to show that a child is more than his foster care file.

"This is one of many recruitment efforts raising consciousness within the community," said Fredi Juni, management director of Alameda County Social Services and co-founder of The Bay Area Heart Gallery. "A lot of families who never knew, never considered adoption, are considering it (after seeing the photos)."

The gallery, an annual exhibit, is a partnership between four private and public adoption agencies and 30 professional photographers in Alameda, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. This year, it features 54 photographs of children eligible for adoption,as well as the families that already have been successfully matched with youths. Each photograph, taken by a professional volunteer, is displayed alongside the youth's story to promote awareness and involvement in the foster care system.

The photographs are on display locally through the end of the month at county government offices in Oakland and Hayward.

The gallery is modeled after similar galleries nationwide, but focuses on the involvement of diverse family types, adoption and the creation of permanent connections with older youth instead of only younger children.

Robin Fryday, the event's photography chair and co-founder of The Bay Area Heart Gallery Photography chair, said seven of about 45 youth featured in The Bay Area Heart Gallery exhibition last year were adopted. But finding the right family for a child is only the beginning in a long process.

Steep steps of foster care
There are 10,000 children in foster care in the Bay Area, nearly 50 percent of them over age 10. For older youths, there are fewer options and the alternatives are bleak. This is the reason The Bay Area Heart Gallery is trying to spread awareness about the adoption alternatives for children 11 to 18 years old.

"We want to emphasize the older youth," Juni said. "Your average person thinks of a baby (when thinking of adopting). We are putting an effort out for older children."

Once a child reaches 12, Juni said, they have to consent to being adopted and surprisingly, many older youths have no interest in adoption.

"Some older children and teenagers still have ties to their birth family or just don't understand adoption," she said.

But once they reach 18 or graduate from high school, there is no stable foundation for many foster youths. Alameda County Social Services is using the Heart Gallery to facilitate another option for them.

"A permanent connection is for an older child that may be aging out of the system," Fryday said. "A youth may be 18 years old, but doesn't have someone to share the holidays with."

"We want to match them with adults who may want to be there for a child, but are not looking to adopt and are looking for another option," Juni said.

Without a permanent connection or someone to fall back on, the 4,000 foster children in the Bay Area who "age out" of the system annually face a grim future.

More than 60 percent are not able to support themselves, and one in four have experienced homelessness. Only half have earned a high school diploma. Many struggle with emotional and physical problems that increase the likelihood for situations such as being homeless, alcohol and drug abuse, and incarceration.

Reuniting with Isaiah
Shoshana and Nann Phoenixx-Dawn of Oakland were reunited with 4-year-old Isaiah nine months ago. The couple had wanted to adopt the boy since they saw his photograph in The Bay Area Heart Gallery last year but were told that he was going to be placed with someone else.

But after the first couple could not complete the process, Isaiah returned to the foster care system.

"For the next year, when we were waiting for him, he went through two other placements of temporary foster homes," Nann Phoenixx-Dawn said.

Although Isaiah had places to go to, rotating foster homes can have lasting effects on a child.

"By the time he was 31/2, he had been in three different homes and had done a fair amount of regressing," Nann Phoenixx-Dawn said. "He was born three months premature, substance exposed, and he had a brain leak in the hospital. So with his file, there was a big question mark."

Today, Isaiah shows that a 4-year-old can overcome a rough start.

"When we first got him, he couldn't play in the park with other children, he couldn't climb up on a chair. He was definitely regressed," Shoshana Phoenixx-Dawn said. "Now we have developed a lot of routines. He is pretty close to not qualifying (for special education classes)."

"He has already surpassed, in the nine months he has been with us, the expectations (specialists) had for him for the rest of his life," she continued. "This is a young man that is working as hard as he can to be a part of his new family."

The couple is still waiting to officially adopt Isaiah as well as their other son, a

3-year-old who they found through Alameda County Social Services and have cared for since infancy. Because all facets of reunification with a child's birth family must be attempted before adoption is approved, their other son is still going through the adoption process.

"We all know how crazy the system is, once we're in, but none of us regret doing what we have done," Nann Phoenixx-Dawn said. "We have our stories of heartbreak, we have our stories when the system was really screwed up, but remember you are working with a bureaucracy."

Looking to the future
While there is not stability for many youths, there is progress.

Five years ago there were 5,000 children in the foster care system in Alameda County.

"Today, there are 2,252, with the bulk of the children between the ages of 11 and 18," said Carol Collins, executive director of Alameda County Social Services.

More than 300 youths age out of the county's foster care system each year, and there is little to no foundation for a youth to fall back on.

One recent effort is Emancipation Village — a college-like campus for teenagers 16 to 18 who are aging out of the system, and young adults 18 to 24 who have nowhere to go.

Emancipation Village, which plans to break ground in 2010 on what was formerly an orphanage in East Oakland, shows there are steps being made in the right direction. Once complete, it will include five two-bedroom apartments for 16- to 18-year-olds in foster care and 30 studio apartments for youths who have recently aged out.

Emancipation Village also will provide an array of services, including health care, employment and education resources to help prepare youth for the next step.

"You need this so young people can plan their lives independent of the system. To emphasize transition into more permanent housing," Collins said,

Emancipation Village is being built through a $1.6 million grant from the city of Oakland Housing Department.

The Bay Area Heart Gallery seeks to increase adoption of older youths before they need a program like Emancipation Village.

But for now, the group transforms these youths from a statistic to a face.

"It was Isaiah's photo that told us there was someone else there," Shoshana Phoenixx-Dawn said. "His photo told a bigger story than his file."

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