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Ventura County

A Role Model for Foster Teenagers

Services: Sabrina Biggs, who runs a youth advocacy group in Ventura County, has won the respect of her superiors and the trust of her charges.

January 19, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pros advised her not to get too close to the kids. Help them sort out their problems and go home, social service veterans cautioned.

Sabrina Biggs never did listen.

When she started an advocacy group for Ventura County foster teens two years ago, her mentors were people who insisted on caring--and made a difference.

"All of my social workers when I was in foster care had a relationship with me," Biggs said. "And that's what made me want to do good in life. I try to project that onto my kids."

As the county's liaison between foster care youths and the social services bureaucracy, Biggs is making impressive strides.

Ventura County's chapter of the California Youth Connection has been named the best in the state for two years running, beating out 23 others. Run by foster teens, the organization lobbies for changes in laws to benefit children who are being raised in foster care.

Under Biggs' guidance, the Ventura group has grown to nearly 40 members--rivaling the chapter in much larger Los Angeles County.

The Ventura chapter will host a conference in April, drawing teenage foster children from across the state. And most important, supporters say, the 29-year-old Biggs has earned respect and trust from kids used to eyeing anyone in authority with suspicion.

Foster teens identify with Biggs because she knows first hand how childhood abuse and betrayal can color a person's world, said 19-year-old Heather Stubbs, who has been with the group from the start.

"Her own experience with being in our shoes brings her on the same level," Stubbs said. "She understands what we are going through better than someone who's had a sheltered life."

Biggs was 15 when she decided she could no longer shoulder caring for herself and three younger brothers and sisters. Her mother was using drugs and her father was in prison, she said.

"Here I was entering high school and I was the parent," she said. "No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep things together. It just fell apart. So I left. I didn't want that lifestyle."

She bounced around to four foster homes before being taken in by a sympathetic therapist. After high school, she began working as a counselor at group homes where foster children are housed.

Her enthusiasm caught the attention of Ventura County Human Services Agency Director Barbara Fitzgerald, who was looking for someone to fill a newly created position coordinating activities for foster teens.

Though Biggs "hit the ground running," it hasn't all been upbeat, Fitzgerald said.

"She had some ups and downs," she said. "Some of the foster kids pull through and are wonderful successes. Others have a much more difficult time."

Biggs gives the kids her pager and cell phone number so she can be reached any time. She pleads with group home operators to bend rules so teens can attend California Youth Connection meetings, which take place at night when the homes restrict activities.

And sometimes, all it takes is a well-timed hug, Biggs said.

"You can feel how much they need love when they hug me," she said. "That's what's making it successful--because it's real."

Her latest project is raising enough money to send 10 foster teenagers to Sacramento in the spring to meet with legislators and press their case for changes in law. The trip will cost about $3,000 for all 10.

The teens are worried that legislators might gut a new law that allows foster care payments to continue through age 21, instead of 18, if youths are going to college or learning a trade. Five teens traveled to the Capitol last year and found it an empowering experience, Biggs said.

"They don't want to complain, they want to solve problems," she said. "They want to create an easier path for the younger ones so they don't go through what they've gone through."

Much like Biggs herself.

"It's not like I'm going to know them for a couple of years, and then they're on their own," she said. "If they go away and come back, I will be there."

FYI

People wishing to help may contact Sabrina Biggs at 484-7114, or send checks to: California Youth Connection, 1722 S. Lewis Road, Camarillo, CA 93012

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