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A child needs a family

Natalia, lovely and loving, is 11, speaks little English and has only a few days left in her quest for a home before she returns to Colombia. Kidsave is trying to help.

January 03, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Natalia, center, plays a board game with Brett and Becca Rosenblatt, whose family participates in Kidsave, which seeks adoptive families for unadoptable kids.
Natalia, center, plays a board game with Brett and Becca Rosenblatt, whose… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Natalia has two weeks to find a family in America. She is 11, speaks almost no English and is visiting from Colombia, where she has spent almost all her life parent-less, in government care.

But Rhona Rosenblatt believes that someone here will fall in love with this beautiful Afro-Colombian child, if only her family in Pacific Palisades can do enough to get Natalia's story told.

For 10 days, Natalia has been staying with the Rosenblatt family — Rhona, Kenny and their two young children — as part of the Winter Miracles program of a Culver City group called Kidsave, which tries to find adoptive families for unadoptable kids in Los Angeles and abroad.

Natalia's visit has been a delight, Rosenblatt told me. "She is such a lovely and loving little girl."

She ticks off a list of Natalia's attributes: tidy, mannerly, sweet, expressive. She carries groceries in without being asked. She takes her plate to the sink after meals. She's tender with 6-year-old Becca and gentle with 3-year-old Brett. She loves to jump on the trampoline and delights in beating them all at the board game "Sorry."

The family's biggest hurdle is not the language barrier or cultural difference or awkwardness of tending a stranger. "Our greatest anxiety," Rosenblatt said, "is what if we don't find a family for her?

"If Natalia goes back to Colombia with no prospects [for adoption], I will feel like we've failed in something that is really important."

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Kidsave began 12 years ago as a path to America for children living in Russian orphanages. But the goal of its founders, then and now, was bigger than finding adoptive homes.

"They wanted to demonstrate that these kids, hidden from view, could be successful adults and contribute to society," said Kidsave vice president Lauren Reicher Gordon. "They thought this would be a way to move these children into permanency in their own countries."

It didn't exactly work out that way, but Kidsave expanded, building partnerships in Colombia and a handful of African countries, where older children are often written off as unwanted.

A few years in, Kidsave officials realized that our homegrown problem is not much different. Every year, more than 5,000 children in California age out of government foster care without family ties or permanent homes.

"Orphanages in Russia. Foundations in Colombia. Group homes in California. There's not much difference," Gordon said. "Children, through no fault of their own, are growing up without parents; with people paid to care for them."

Now Kidsave also recruits local families to host weekend visits for foster children in Los Angeles. They don't have to be interested in adoption; any connection with a caring adult and exposure to a healthy family improves the prospects of an unmoored teen in foster care.

And every family willing to host provides a largely hidden problem with middle-class visibility and status.

"This is the kind of issue that doesn't resonate in many circles," Gordon said. "People are not talking about kids growing up without families when they're at a dinner party or getting their nails done or in line at the grocery store."

Kidsave relies on families like the Rosenblatts to help change that, Gordon said: "To put kids who don't have families on our list of personal tragedies."

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The Rosenblatts are what Kidsave calls an advocacy family; not on a trial run for adoption but willing to tap every resource in its circle to help Natalia find a home.

Natalia's picture was on the family's holiday card; her story ran in their temple's newsletter. Friends get a steady stream of photos and updates, and they pass those along on their jobs, in their churches and at the schools their children attend.

"All it takes is one person, one family," Rosenblatt said. "You never know who you'll reach if you cast the net as wide as you can."

When Natalia arrived with nothing but "a teeny, tiny backpack," their friends showed up with clothes for her. "People want to help. It's become personal to them. 'This is not just some organization, it's Rhona and Kenny doing this.' "

Rhona spent 10 years as a social worker, handling adoptions for the county and a private agency. She knows how hard it is to find homes for older children. And she's seen how heartbreaking the process can be for unwanted kids.

Kidsave officials tell the children only that they are coming to America to experience life in a family, learn some English and find out how people in this country live.

But they know better, their chaperon told me. "Many expect to be adopted. So they are disappointed" when they go back.

Some, like Natalia, come more than once. She spent last summer with a family in Iowa, but went home without an adoption offer. Kidsave officials suspect her dark skin was an obstacle. She seems to me a beautiful, friendly, good-natured child. It is easy to believe her prospects might be better here, in diverse Los Angeles.

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