About 1,000 children a month are removed from their Los Angeles homes and taken into protective custody. Often victims of domestic violence, neglect or abuse, they may be newborns left in trash bins, infants addicted to drugs their mothers took while pregnant or children abandoned to an unsuspecting baby sitter.
Most of these victimized children would benefit from the care of a foster home. Instead, they're often placed in a group facility such as MacLaren Children's Center, according to Sally McCoy, director of foster home recruitment for the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services.
The reason is simple. There are 14,000 to 15,000 children already in the Los Angeles County system and only 3,500 foster homes.
Despite heightened public awareness about child abuse, Southern California social-service agencies find it difficult to recruit families to care for these young victims.
"Abused children are really not a government problem per se, they're a community problem," says Barbara J. Labitske, foster home development coordinator for the County of Orange and executive director of the Southern Area Foster Care Effort (SAFE).
"You can't just rescue the children, you have to have a place to put the children for their own safety," she says.
The greatest need is for long-term and emergency-shelter-care foster families. Except for those children being readied for adoption, "the goal of foster care is to reunite children with their natural parents whenever possible," Labitske says.
Both McCoy and Labitske emphasize that caring for a foster child is not just doing a good deed for a weekend. It's a full-time commitment.
"The most common thing foster parents have to deal with is coping with what these kids have been through and getting these kids back on track," McCoy says.
"There's still confusion about foster care," Labitske adds. "There's a myth that poor people do this to make money. That's not true. The amount of reimbursement is relatively modest compared to the cost of raising a child these days.
"This is really a labor of love, an act of devotion," Labitske says. "We truly need people from all walks of life. Abandoned and abused children cross all socio-economic boundaries."
Latino Homes Needed
Los Angeles County particularly needs more Latino foster homes, because one-third of the children in protective custody are Latino, McCoy says. The lack of Latino homes forces the county to "place kids in a language-barrier situation," which further traumatizes a child, she says.
The first step to becoming a foster parent is a phone call. In Los Angeles County, call Homefinders: (213) 418-2032. For Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Riverside counties and areas of Los Angeles County outside the 213 area code, call (800) 426-2233, Ext. 883, and ask for SAFE. You'll be directed to an agency in your county that handles foster care.
The Children's Bureau of Los Angeles is a private, nonprofit, non-sectarian agency that also recruits foster parents and helps them through the certification. The bureau also supports a new foster-care effort called Child Shelter Homes: A Rescue Effort (SHARE), which works with church congregations to find foster families for children under age 5. For more information call (213) 384-2515.
All prospective foster parents must attend a state-mandated orientation meeting. In Los Angeles County, 40 such meetings are held monthly in different communities at day and evening hours and on Saturdays. In Orange County, a group orientation is given during four evening sessions.
At these meetings, the rules for becoming a foster parent are explained, and you can determine whether foster parenting is right for you.
Once you make the decision to become a foster parent, you must fill out an application and go through a sometimes lengthy approval process for state licensing. This is handled by a county agency and can take anywhere from three to six months.
While policies for becoming a foster parent vary among the counties, there are certain requirements that can be expected. You must be in good health and pass a TB test. You must be of good moral character and provide references. The county agency will also check for a criminal background and take your fingerprints.
If you are single, you may still be a foster parent, but only for a child of school age.
Foster parents must prepare their homes for a child. You'll probably be expected to install smoke detectors in the house, lock up medicines, secure firearms, make sure window bars are the breakaway type and put fencing around a pool. All safety hazards should be removed from the house and yard, and you'll have to provide sufficient bedroom space.
The home must also be equipped with the typical furnishings for a child. If the foster child is an infant or toddler, a crib and car seat are required. For an older child, a sturdy bed is necessary. These expenses are the responsibility of the foster parents.
Although foster families receive a monthly annuity to pay for a child's care, no salaries are paid. Most of the child's medical and dental expenses are covered.
A home study, designed to take a close look at your family and your home, will be made by a social worker. The study will determine if your family and home are ready and equipped to take in foster children.
You can help prepare for your foster-parenting role by taking courses given through the community college system. There are courses on infant CPR and emergency first aid (required for Los Angeles County), plus specialized courses on topics such as alcohol-syndrome infants and "drug babies."
For prospective foster parents, waiting to get licensed can be slow and frustrating.
Most counties have foster-parent associations and various support groups to help you.
Ask your licensing worker about contacting a support group in your area.