Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Foster Care Baby Shower

Advocates gather to hold a baby shower for foster children
Dolittle, Emilie. Los Gatos Weekly-Times, Sept. 17, 2008.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, 30 people sat drinking tea and chatting in Kathy Williams' back yard in Saratoga. While the tea and sandwiches were delicious and the flower arrangements were delightful, the conversations were hardly lighthearted.

One woman talked about a foster child whose mother was addicted to methamphetamines. Another women talked about "toxic babies," and how they are set up for a life of hardship.

Karen Aring of Saratoga described a mother who was habitually pregnant. Her eight children all joined the Santa Clara County dependency system.

"She should have her tubes tied," one woman chided, which changed the conversation to the accessibility of birth control in the system.

While they shared their personal struggles in advocating for foster children, they also related their triumphs, and how they had improved the lives of the children they worked with. The women volunteer for Silicon Valley Child Advocates, an agency that matches trained volunteers with children in the Santa Clara County Dependency system to ensure that the children's needs are met.

Each advocate plans activities to do with the child once or twice a week. The advocates also research every aspect of a child's case, meeting caregivers, social workers, health care providers, attorneys and teachers. Then the advocates file reports for the Family Wellness Court of Santa Clara to help determine the placement of the foster children.

On that warm afternoon, they joined with the Family Wellness Court of Santa Clara and First 5 Santa Clara for a "Foster Care Baby Shower" at Williams' home. Together the organizations contributed a roomful of baby supplies to the families of the Family Wellness Court. The court serves pregnant women and mothers whose substance abuse puts their children at risk of out-of-home placement.

First 5 Santa Clara, which provides services for young children and their families, donated six large containers of clothes, baby food and developmentally appropriate toys. Family Wellness Court Judge Erica Yew thanked everyone for their contributions.

The host, Kathy Williams, has been an advocate since 1997 and is the board chairwoman of Child Advocates. She has worked with 12 children so far. She advocated for a traumatized 18-month-old who was taken from his home because his parents were abusing drugs. The child was very fearful unwilling to move on his blanket. He was afraid of loud noises and large movements and he wouldn't explore his surroundings like most children his age.

The foster care woman who was taking care of him didn't have time to play with him on top of looking after all of her other foster children. So Williams would play with the child and take him to quiet places where he felt safe. When he got older, she took him outside the home, exposing him to such everyday things as going to the park or eating a meal at a restaurant.

When the court was going to move the child to another foster care home, Williams told them that moving the child would set him back and that having him remain in the same foster care home was better for him. The court allowed the child to remain in his original foster care home.

Because advocates work so closely with the children, their reports to the Family Wellness Court have an impact on where the child is placed. The court implements three out of four of their recommendations.

Yew can relate to the advocate's perspective because she was an advocate before she became a judge. She advocated for three children, whom she still keeps in touch with even though they've grown up, and two of them have became lawyers.

Yew talked about the children in the cases she deals with. "Many of the children are born with developmental problems," she said. "Almost all of the parents have a history of incarceration, homelessness, lack of education, trauma, loss, abandonment. Most of the parents didn't have parenting themselves. These families are very needy. They need people to just talk to them, educate them."

Child advocates not only assist the children, they develop relationships with the parents and support the families in the process of reunification.

Margie Becker of Los Gatos has been a child advocate for several years and has found much satisfaction from working with the mother and child.

She is currently advocating for two children. The children are shy, having lived in an unsafe environment. The 2-year-old is afraid to go to the park. "Sometimes the park is where their parents made drug deals and so the park is not fun," Becker said.

The children's mother was addicted to methamphetamines. The mother had lost her teeth from using drugs and was struggling to find a job, so Becker saw to it that the mother got new teeth.

"The most gratifying thing was working with the mother," Becker said. "She has cleaned herself up. She has a sense of herself as a pretty woman." Becker hopes that someday the mother will be able to be with her children again.

Currently, the children live with their grandparents, who speak only Spanish. When Becker started working with the children, the 4-year-old spoke only Spanish. Now the child can speak both Spanish and English, thanks to Becker's help.

On Sept. 8, Becker will read a report to the court on the children's development. She'll tell the court whether the children need glasses, a therapist, a special school and more. Her report will help the court decide the placement of the children in the dependency system. "I want both of them to be safe and secure and know that good people will take care of them," Becker said.

Other advocates haven't been as lucky working with parents in the dependency system. When advocate Linda Peeveyhouse walked into a dependent mother's house, the child was in a playpen with a cat that had defecated on the sides. The mother, who had been seriously abused and was using drugs, couldn't think of a better way to take care of the baby and cat.

"Sometimes parents can love their children, but they just can't parent them," Aring said. "The parents get overwhelmed." Some of the mothers have become addicted to drugs or have been violently abused. With post-traumatic stress, they have trouble reasoning and executing decisions.

Coming from traumatized parents, the children are often fearful. Not only have the children been abused and neglected, they are moved to different foster homes an average of four times before they find a permanent home. This inconsistency disrupts their social development and well-being.

Yew advocated for a child who was moved to seven different foster homes. When the child grew up, she told Yew that she was suicidal for part of her childhood and that Yew was the one that brought her out of her depression. The woman thanked Yew for being the only consistent person in her life.

Advocates help at-risk children become healthy, stable adults. Yew has even seen some of them become advocates for other children in the dependency system.

This year Child Advocates will provide volunteers for 26 percent of the children in the Santa Clara County dependency system, but there are still 300 children without an advocate.

"What it really comes down to is spending one-on-one time with a child," Williams said. "It improves their quality of life."

Williams saw the positive affect she had as an advocate when she went to see a foster child sing a song with her classmates at school. The class filed out onto the blacktop to perform for the parents. One by one the children spotted their parents and waved with enthusiasm. Williams' foster child knew that her parent couldn't make it. However, when she saw Williams waiting for her, her face lit up. Finally she had someone who would be there for her.



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