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FOSTER: Caring for Ill, Unwanted : Pain and Love : Strong Hearts Sustain Foster Mothers of Catastrophically Ill Children

July 07, 1985|SUE AVERY | Times Staff Writer

She has five foster children and probably five times the problems of the average parent.

Manuel, 4, has had two heart operations and is deaf.

Stephanie, 4, was physically and sexually abused by her stepfather and suffers from lingering spine and kidney problems.

Johnny, 3, comes from a home where drugs were used and is now up for adoption.

Alicia, 2, was abused by her natural parents and carries deep psychological scars.

But the real heartbreaker, Vera A. Benavides said, is Robert, 2, a victim of cerebral palsy, mentally retarded and blind. Robert had been in two previous foster homes, but those parents had no medical training and could not cope with him, she said.

Benavides, 42, of La Puente, is one of about 50 foster mothers who attended a recent training session at City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte for foster parents who have taken in catastrophically ill children.

Can Be Devastating

Dealing with such a child can be devastating for any parent, and foster parents face additional problems. They must handle routine parenting problems as well as cope with doctors who don't take them seriously and natural parents who interfere.

They must spend hours filling out forms and even more time driving children to medical clinics and sitting in doctors' waiting rooms.

And all the while, they fight a widespread image of foster parents as people who take in children strictly for the money.

The training session, "Parenting the Medically Needy Child," was sponsored by the medical placement unit of the county Department of Children's Services.

It was the first of a series of sessions aimed at helping foster parents provide homes for sick children whose natural parents cannot cope with the situation, said Judy Flicker, director of the medical placement unit. Another session, focusing on improving the foster child's self-image, will be held July 23 at the Arboretum in Arcadia.

According to Flicker, it is impossible to determine how many parents turn to outside agencies for help with seriously ill children. Her unit is working with about 100 foster parents, but some cases within the Department of Children's Services do not come to her unit's attention. Many others are handled outside the county agency, she said.

One woman who has taken on more than her share of problems is Benavides. A single mother with some nursing training, she has taken in foster children for 16 years.

She has three natural children, ranging in age from 16 to 22, and a 5-year-old adopted daughter.

"I got into it by accident when a neighbor told me he was putting his son in reform school and two weeks later the boy showed up on my doorstep," she said.

"I first worked with hard-core juvenile delinquents and then the county asked me to work with handicapped children."

Benavides said it is difficult to explain why people are willing to take in handicapped children.

"Most of my friends are foster parents of these children," she said. "We share the problems and the experiences and comfort each other when a child dies.

'We Like Challenges'

"A lot of us have personal reasons why we are involved. Some of us came from large families and want to surround ourselves with these children nobody wants. We like challenges. And maybe we are selfish--maybe we feel we are leaving a better world behind when our lives are over.

"We do it because we care. I just can't express it," she said.

"At Christmas I always hear from the kids who have come and gone and it is the best present I get, knowing they are loved and cared for," Benavides said, thumbing through a wallet filled with pictures of foster children past and present.

Despite the rewards, there are serious problems, not the least of which is money.

"People think we are in it for the money," Benavides said. "But this is a full-time job and there are no vacations. I don't make any money from it."

$280 to $946 a Month

According to Flicker, foster parents of sick or disabled children are paid between $280 and $946 a month for each child, depending on the severity of the illness and the age of the child. The allotment is supposed to cover all expenses, excluding medical bills, which generally are covered by Medi-Cal, she said.

But Benavides says the amount she receives provides only enough to get by and she often dips into her own pocketbook to cover extras, such as toys for the children. She has to hire help, including a full-time housekeeper who oversees the household when she is away and an aide who helps with the children and housekeeping chores.

Benavides said her days are busy, taken up with driving children to doctors and clinics, then waiting, often hours, for them.

"I take the children as far away as Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles," she said. "Wherever the needs can be met--that's where we go."

Her day doesn't end when the children go to sleep.

Plenty of Paper Work

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