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A Special Need

Homes: Sign language users are desperately needed to serve as foster parents for deaf children.

March 12, 1997|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During a visit to a 13-year-old pregnant girl, a Los Angeles County social worker made a startling discovery: a deaf 3-year-old boy, lying malnourished and filthy in a cardboard box.

When social workers came across a deaf 8-year-old girl, her jeans and shirt were so caked with dirt that they had to be discarded. The fingers of her left hand had been amputated shortly after she was born. The youngster, they thought, was retarded--it turned out not to be true.

Neither child could speak or use sign language and social workers scurried to find homes for each. Authorities placed the boy in a group home and later in a foster home. The girl had already bounced through several foster and group homes before she landed in the foster home where she lives today and has learned sign language.

Placing children like these in foster homes is difficult because of the terrible shortage of foster families able to communicate with deaf children, experts say.

"We have a screaming need for foster parents here," said Missy Barone, a therapist and coordinator of the deaf foster care program at Five Acres, an Altadena-based therapeutic treatment center for abused children.

To combat the problem, Barone and Five Acres have launched a program to recruit foster parents who can fluently use sign language. Barone, who is deaf, hopes she will reach potential foster parents--those who can hear and those who are deaf--as long as they know sign language.

"It's time for us as deaf individuals to roll up our sleeves and do something for our community" said Barone, through a sign language interpreter. "I believe some deaf people think they can't be foster parents because they have no role models. They do have what it takes. I let them know they can make a huge difference."

In Los Angeles County, about 42,200 children are placed in group or foster homes. Of those, about 150 are deaf. In 1994, the county set up a deaf services unit to place deaf children and to work with deaf parents. Barone and Five Acres work with county social workers, trying to provide homes.

Slowly, word of Barone's quest has spread through the deaf community, trickling out through newsletters, churches and events catering to the hearing-impaired in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

For those who are interested in becoming foster parents, Barone provides an eight-week, 16-hour course covering the nuts and bolts of child safety as well as thornier topics such as relating to children who are recovering from abuse or neglect and dealing with problem behavior.

This month, two courses will finish in Orange County and Los Angeles. The group of graduates is small: three couples and three single women. But Barone hopes to hold the course again, each time increasing the number of potential foster parents.

Patricia Jones, who works as a teaching assistant with deaf children at a Los Angeles Unified special education school, enrolled in the course. Jones, who signs fluently, saw the foster children at her school and caught herself thinking: I can do this.

"My heart just went out to the deaf children," said Jones, a Los Angeles resident. "It made me just want to show them the world. I wanted to let them know they're not different. I wanted to let them know they are just like us."

*

Lisa Malmeth, who is deaf, saw Barone explain the need for foster parents at a Deaf Advocacy Council meeting. For Malmeth, the news resonated on a personal level. Malmeth, 38, was adopted as a child and raised by a hearing family that did not know sign language.

Malmeth returned to her Stevenson's Ranch home and discussed the prospects of becoming a foster parent with her 16-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, both of whom are able to hear. With the ready approval of her children, Malmeth enrolled in Five Acres' course.

Before a foster child can be placed with Malmeth, she will undergo background checks and her home will be inspected.

But emotionally, Malmeth believes she is ready. "My heart is open," Malmeth said. "I can't change the whole world, but I can make a difference for one child."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on Five Acres, an organization that has launched a program to recruit foster parents for deaf children. The therapeutic treatment center for abused children seeks adults who can use sign language fluently. For more information, (818) 798-6793 or (213) 681-4827. TDD: (818) 797-7722.

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