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ANN CONWAY

Putting Their Troubles Behind

Former Orange County foster children are honored for accepting and overcoming challenges dealt to them. Awardees are praised at ceremony for going from 'adversity to acclamation.'

June 30, 1998|ANN CONWAY

Being attacked with a vacuum cleaner would have been abuse enough.

But for the young girl, it was one of a merry- go-round of abuses she endured as a child. There was the broken nose at the hands of one adult, molestation by another, the hours of kneeling in a corner on hard, raw beans at the bidding of another. And always, there was abandonment--with the companion feelings of hopelessness, helplessness.

"It's all in my past," said the now-18-year-old woman, determination in her voice. These days, she is a college student whose goal is "to be a missionary and help people around the world."

She was among several former foster children from Orange County honored last week by the Southern Area Fostercare Effort (SAFE), a nonprofit organization founded in 1982 to improve the lives of abused children. All the awardees have gone from "adversity to acclamation," said Barbara J. Labitzke, executive director of SAFE, during the awards luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena.

"These are young adults who already seem to realize that just because you fall into deep water doesn't mean you will drown," Labitzke told guests, who were seated in a ballroom decorated with gold-laced ceilings and stained-glass windows. "You only drown if you stay there. We're here today to give them the praise they deserve for what they've accomplished."

Among the honorees were Brian Jasmine, Janelle Cabassa, Michele Hainley, Theresa Miller and Araceli Trujillo. All have gone on to hold jobs and pursue college educations.

Dressed in their summer best, they dined at tables draped in crisp white linen, watching as other young adults from Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside and San Diego counties received awards.

One young man also singled out for overcoming a troubled childhood was Ray De Mena of Los Angeles, winner of the William G. Steiner Award. Steiner, a child advocate, is chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and former head of Orangewood, the county's home for abused and abandoned children.

When De Mena was introduced, guests were told that his birth mother had been killed in an automobile accident the very day he was to be returned to her from foster care. He was grateful to the foster care system, he said, for helping him survive.

Steiner, who was among guests at the 11th annual awards luncheon, said in an interview that the state's foster care system is vital to protecting children.

"There's no way that we can build enough shelters to protect children from abuse and neglect," he said. "There are nearly 100,000 children in California in foster care--children who are unable to live safely with their families."

Not all foster homes are trouble-free, Steiner acknowledged. "We need good screening of foster parents to recruit the kind of people who should be caring for other people's children.

"And we need to train those families to deal with increasingly damaged children," he said. "The child who goes into foster care today is far different from the child of 20 years ago. Our society has become more complex. There's more pressure on families--working moms, single parents, alcohol, drug abuse. So there is a more serious victimization of children."

*

Jasmine, 21, was only 4 when he was taken to an Orange County facility for abused, abandoned and neglected children.

"It got lonely. I often cried myself to sleep between the ages of 4 and 8," he said.

Jasmine went through a number of foster homes, enduring more difficulties in some. Then, at age 10, he was linked with a foster family that gave him the love he longed for.

"They were wonderful. I'm so thankful for them being in my life. They treated me like a son," he said.

Hainley, too, lived in various foster homes until she connected with a loving family. The couple and their three children called her the "missing piece of our puzzle."

"I'm a stronger person now; I have no regrets," said Hainley, a recent graduate of the University of San Diego. "My character has been fully developed. I love who I've become through it all."

Labitzke, who said there are about 3,600 children in Orange County in foster care, said the incidence of trouble in California foster homes is low, "less than 2%."

Foster parents in general "are people who have a real caring mentality--the kind of people who go into social work or the helping professions," she said.

Jasmine said he'd like to encourage mature adults to consider becoming foster parents.

"For responsible people who think they can give a child love, I would say, 'Try it. It's a great opportunity for a child.' "

* For information on SAFE, based in Orange: (714) 939-3090.

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