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Marketing Effort Planned to Alleviate Severe Shortage of Foster Parents

Social services: Orange County, responding to criticism by the grand jury and a task force, also seeks to hire 'coaches' to work with people leaving the foster system.


Orange County is taking the first steps toward a new marketing push to add to the ranks of its foster care parents. In the near future, ads or similar appeals for more foster families may be appearing on billboards and TV spots.

The county has only 650 licensed foster families--most of which care for two children--but has more than 3,000 youngsters needing placement. Officials hope that by hiring a consultant to "market" foster care, they will be able to recruit more families.

"If we can get at least 200 more foster parents, that would be wonderful, and if we can get more, that would be great," said Michael Riley, director of the county Children and Family Services.

Until now, the county has relied on word of mouth as the best recruitment tool and plugged its programs in short promotional spots run before movies at area Edwards cinemas.

The new push is in response to a critical grand jury report in February and recommendations by a citizens foster care task force. Plans are preliminary and there are no cost figures for the undertaking, but the Board of Supervisors has given its approval to solicit plans from consultants.

"When we went to the [Board of Supervisors] in August, we knew they couldn't just bless this and say here's millions of dollars," said Jill Arthur, a task force member who had pushed for the public relations campaign.

Setting a New Tone to Help Children

The idea is to spotlight successful foster parents and have them share their experiences, which task force members believe could result in more children being placed in foster homes and, possibly, being adopted.

Jim Palmer, Orange County Rescue Mission's president and a task force member, said he was pleased with the marketing plan because it forces many administrators in social service circles to think in a different way.

"All you read in the papers is horror stories about foster parents doing this or that, so foster parents have gotten a bad name out there," said Palmer, a father of several adopted children who came through the foster system. "We need to set a new tone in the county for helping children."

According to task force members, the number of abused, molested and abandoned children in the county rises about 11% each year. The county has 4,500 foster children; those not living with a licensed family stay with a relative under county supervision or are in group homes. An additional 1,200 are in a voluntary court program in which they live at home under supervision and receive services from the county.

The number of cases has overwhelmed the county's 400 social service workers assigned to children. Sixty-nine new social service workers were supposed to have been hired, but those plans were delayed because of state budget uncertainties, social service officials said.

Indeed, the agency's overall plan to double the number of caseworkers to more than 800 by 2005 will be postponed because of budget constraints. "Because of the budget crunch, all bets are off," Riley said.

Mentors to Work With Youths Leaving System

The governor recently imposed a state hiring freeze, proposed 15% state agency budget cuts and announced that the state may have a $14-billion deficit.

County social services is, however, planning to contract through an outside agency to hire 12 "coaches" to help emancipated youths, those 18 to 21 who have graduated from foster care.

The program is in part a response to the grand jury report, which found that teens in foster care do poorly when they leave the system because of a lack of transitional living and support programs. According to the report, within 12 to 18 months after leaving the system, half of the youths were unemployed, more than a third had not finished high school and nearly half had become single parents.

The coaches--essentially mentors--must be 21 or older and will fill the role of a father, mother or relative in a traditional family, Riley said.

"These coaches would help shepherd youths through the maze of services out there for them and teach them everything from how to fill out a grant aid application for college or job application and also how to behave during interviews," Riley said.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad, who has pushed for improvements in the county's foster care system, said she is pleased with the agency's progress but believes that more should be done faster to help emancipated youths.

The task force was created through Coad's office, although it initially was met with reluctance by top social services officials.

"I think our foster care services are good but we needed community input," Coad said. "I'm happy with the task force format because, to me, it was an action-oriented step."

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