During a warm December in 1985, a burst of bullets abruptly ended the lives of a young Latino couple in front of their three children.
The children were swiftly removed and spared gazing at the bloody aftermath of the shoot-out with police, who raided the family's South-Central Los Angeles apartment looking for drugs. But the children--ages 3, 6 and 8--spent the next seven hours sharing their initial shock inside the austere walls of the downtown office of the county Department of Children's Services.
At nearby telephones, social workers frantically searched for a foster home where Spanish was spoken that would care for all three children.
On Edge of Despair
"Finally, after begging, praying and almost on the edge of despair, we found someone to take the children," said Virginia Nations, who was working as a social worker for the department. "It was imperative that we place the children with a Spanish-speaking foster home so that the trauma could at least be minimized and they could begin to work through some of their grief."
Although lodging for the children was eventually found, Nations said she realized that, while there is always a need for foster homes, the need for homes where Spanish is spoken is especially acute.
She is now one of three recruiters in the county who comb churches, neighborhood centers and virtually any other gathering place looking for people who will open their homes to foster children. And Nations is hitting especially hard in heavily Latino pockets such as the Southeast area and Long Beach because more than one-third of the children taken into protective custody are Latino--yet only 600 out of 3,700 licensed foster homes belong to Latino families.
"It is a crisis we're experiencing and facing. We want to see the Latin community come forth and develop leadership skills as volunteers and be a voice for our children," Nations said.
Another reason why there is a push for Latino foster homes, Nations said, is that most Latino children have an additional obstacle to overcome: a language barrier.
"These children come into the system and most of the time foster parents cannot communicate with the child. Kids wind up completely lost in the situation. It increases the trauma instead of minimizing it," Nations said.
Parents Can't Fill Role
Out of 25,000 children placed in protective custody each year in the county, about 8,000 are Latinos. Some have been abused or neglected by their parents, but sometimes they need a temporary home because their parents are in jail, or ill or otherwise unable to care for the children.
As the number of Latinos has grown in Los Angles County in the last 10 years, so have the number of Spanish-speaking children needing foster care.
"The kids come here damaged already," said Nations, noting that many of the children come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. "Many have not ever been to school. Often the parents do not have legal status. The adjustment process is just tremendous."
Even different customs can be a barrier for some children.
Nations cited one case where a black foster mother was concerned that a young Latino did not want to eat in her home. A county worker finally spoke to the child in Spanish.
"The child was used to a certain diet and ate with a tortilla," said Nations. "He was too embarrassed to say he didn't eat with a fork. . . . It's little things like that make it or break it for a kid."
Although the county has had a Latino recruiter for several years, it wasn't until late 1985 that the department transferred Nations from social work to recruit Latinos, said Sally McCoy, director of foster home recruitment and licensing. A third recruiter was hired last fall.
"Now we have to be really aggressive," McCoy said. "We have to play catch-up with all the years we had a hard time getting Hispanic families."
Bridging Cultural Gap
McCoy said one of the difficulties the recruiters have had to overcome in signing up Latinos is that many do not understand what foster care means, since it does not exist in their culture.
"There is not a concept of foster parent per se. We have to explain that it is not adoptive. It is only temporary custody of a child," said McCoy, noting that the objective of the foster care program is to eventually reunite parents with their children.
The road to recruitment has had other obstacles as well.
Although recruiters were emphasizing the program to Latinos, many of the materials, including an information pamphlet, had not been translated into Spanish. And, until recently, there were fewer than 100 Spanish-speaking social workers to deal with the heavy caseload of Latino children, Nations said.
"The system was not set up. There were enormous obstacles we had to overcome. But the bottom line is that recently the department has shown a commitment . . . toward improving services to the Hispanic community," Nations said.
Nations has received help from a group she formed last year called Las Madrinas, the godmothers.