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Thousands of Kids in Local Foster Care System Are In Need of a Good Home

Audio

Aired 4/20/09

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): When social services agencies remove children from a dangerous or unsuitable home environment, their first hope is to eventually reunite those children with their families. Often that reunion is not possible, and then the aim becomes to place the child in a good foster home, and ultimately to see the child adopted by loving parents. There are many children in California waiting to see that dream come true. But it isn't a simple or a streamlined process. Lots of kids in care have special needs, and they are older than the infant many parents want to adopt. And some say the adoption process is hampered by too many regulations that discourage potential parents. Today we're talking about foster parents and adoptions, the children that need care in San Diego, and efforts underway to smooth the process for both kids and their prospective parents. My guests are Karny Stefan. She is CEO of Walden Family Services, which is a private, nonprofit foster family agency, licensed by the State of California to certify foster families. Karny, welcome.

KARNY STEFAN (CEO, Walden Family Services): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Heidi Quiroz is program manager with San Diego County Adoptions. Heidi, thank you for coming in.

HEIDI QUIROZ (Program Manager, San Diego County Adoptions): Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: Heidi, let me start with you and let’s just try to get some facts before we talk. How many children are currently in the San Diego County foster care system?

QUIROZ: Currently, we have over 5400 children in foster care in San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: And why? Why are these children in foster care? What are some of the most common reasons?

QUIROZ: Probably the most common reason that children come into care is due to neglect and drug abuse by their parents. Children also come into the system because of physical or sexual abuse.

CAVANAUGH: And of these 5400, that you mentioned, children in foster care, how many are available for adoption?

QUIROZ: At this point in time in San Diego County, we have over 60 children that are in need of an adoptive home. Generally, on average, we have between 80 and 100 children at any given time.

CAVANAUGH: And is that because there’s a process involved that you spend a certain amount of time in foster care before you become eligible for adoption?

QUIROZ: Yes. In most cases, children – The goal for most of our children that come into custody is reunification with their family of origin, and so the court will allow the parents up to 12 to 18 months to try and reunify with their children. After that 12 to 18 month period, if it looks like the child will not be going home and there’s no relative available to become a legal guardian or an adoptive parent, then we start adoption planning for a child.

CAVANAUGH: And explain to us, why is that the first goal? If a child has been found in an unsuitable home environment, why is it the first goal to reunite that family if it wasn’t working to begin with?

QUIROZ: Well, many times families will improve if they are able to access the services that they need to fix whatever problems that brought the child into custody in the first place. One of the most common issues that we see is, like I said, substance abuse. So many times when a child comes into custody due to neglect, due to substance abuse in the family, if we can get the family into some kind of treatment program and we can get them off the drugs, we’ll see improvement in their parenting skills. So often we’ll ask families to go through a treatment program, to take a parenting class. It really depends on what the issue is for them. And then the court will provide them with a case plan that they’ll need to follow in order to reunify with their children. And in the meantime, they are expected to maintain a relationship with their children and they’re expected to visit them on a regular basis, which many of them do.

CAVANAUGH: Now there does come a time, however, for some families where the court decides they shouldn’t be reunited with their biological parents. And what happens after that?

QUIROZ: That would be when we start permanency planning for children. For many of our children, we also want to look at permanency early on so we don’t necessarily want to wait until 12 to 18 months to then start permanent planning for children. For example, if a child is placed with a relative caregiver, which over 35% of our children are, we would start talking to the relative caregivers early on. What happens if your granddaughter or your niece or your nephew doesn’t go home? Would you be willing to provide a permanent home for the child? And we start early on talking to caregivers, including foster parents, about guardianship and adoption as a permanent plan for the child should the child not go home.

CAVANAUGH: I want to bring in Karny into our conversation. You are the CEO of Walden Family Services. How does your agency work with the County’s foster care program?

STEFAN: Well, all of the children – about half of our children come from the County and about half of our children come from what’s called the regional center. So the County places general placement children with us and the County also places medically fragile children with us. And then the regional center places developmentally disabled kids or mentally disabled children with us.

CAVANAUGH: So you are what’s called a treatment level foster care agency. Specifically, what is that?

STEFAN: Treatment level is a higher level of care so as the rung of foster care goes, you have county homes, then you have foster family agencies, then you have treatment level foster family agencies, and then you would have a group home. And each one has a more intensive work as you go higher up the rung. A group home means that they need 24/7 care.

CAVANAUGH: And I – Either one of you can take this question, do you have an idea on what the percentage of children in foster care who need some sort of treatment? Are there many children that need special help?

QUIROZ: Well, Karny and I were just looking at some of the statistics here and out of the 5400 children in foster care, 340 are placed in a treatment level foster home. And about 670 are placed into group homes that Karny was referring to.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. So quite a number. I wonder, how many kids do you currently have at Walden?

STEFAN: Agency wide, we have 286, I think, last week.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let me take a phone call from Kate in San Diego. Good morning, Kate.

KATE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. I was calling because I know of a situation where there’s a special needs infant who has been in our facility for over a year looking for a foster family and the system is not helping them get it because we have had two people come forward to do it and they have not approved them, they keep taking their time, they lose their paperwork. And this child has been there over 12 months because of the system.

CAVANAUGH: Now what kind of special needs does this child have?

KATE: The child has a trach, that’s all.

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry?

KATE: The child has a tracheostomy…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Okay.

KATE: …and so – and we have a licensed practitioner, we have a healthcare worker who’s willing to take this child, and we have told the state, and this has been going on tremendously long and no one – Oh, yeah, we’ll get back to you. We’ll get back to you. Paperwork’s lost. So I would – I would posit that there is a lot of foster parents out there that get killed in the system.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. Thank you for that, Kate. And, Heidi, do you hear that coming from people who want to get involved in the system of foster care or adoptive parenting?

QUIROZ: I’m not sure about the situation that the caller just described because there are many factors involved for a child to be placed in foster care and one is, you know, we would certainly look at the parents and relative caregivers. And if – then to see if placement with the parents is an option, or are the parents involved? I’m not sure what kind of facility this child is in but, you know, there’s two issues. One is the issue of children coming into foster care and then the other issue is becoming a foster parent. I’d like to think that it’s not as difficult to become a foster adoptive parent as I think a lot of people think. We, our county, does follow state regulations. We’re required, of course, to follow state regulations so there are some basic requirements. In our county, we’re very – we think that training and support for foster and adoptive parents is very important so we have a very good relationship with the Grossmont College Foster Adoption and Kinship Care Education program, which is quite a mouthful. And we provide our foster and adoptive parents with almost 30 hours of training to prepare them. So some people might see that as a hindrance but at the end of the training program, we do get a lot of very positive feedback. The feedback from our foster and adoptive parents is that the classes have really helped them learn how to parent a child who may have medical issues or who may have suffered from abuse and neglect and may have – you know, they have learned some parenting techniques that will help them raise a child with some special needs.

CAVANAUGH: And, Karny, your organization does a lot of that work as well, doesn’t it?

STEFAN: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: In training foster parents?

STEFAN: Umm-hmm. We actually use a program called EPIC which is a very behavior based training program for our foster parents. And the initial training is 30 hours. The next step is if they want to do a developmentally disabled kid, they have to do another level of treatment level training in parenting. And then they have to go through medical training if they’re going to take a medically fragile child, and then they have to go through one-on-one care with a nurse consultant to teach them about that specific child’s issue. So it’s a lot of levels of training but it’s also to make sure that the placement really holds and it becomes the right fit for the child.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk more about the training and the kinds of subjects that you go through when you have the foster parents and perspective adoptive parents go to these classes but first, Heidi, I wanted to ask you, when it comes to a relative taking over the care of a child, what kind of – do they have to go to classes? Do they – What procedure does that involve?

QUIROZ: Well, to become a relative caregiver, attending classes is not required as they are with licensed foster parents, however, we certainly encourage our relative caregivers to come to some of the classes to learn about the court system, to learn about behavioral issues that they may see with their relative children in their home. The relatives do need to be evaluated according to state regulations, which are similar to the licensing regulations as far as having space for the child in the home, looking at any safety issues in the home. But as far as training, it is not mandatory for relative caregivers. Now if a relative caregiver wants to adopt a child in their home, then we do require that they take three classes on adoption issues.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So there are some classes required if you actually want to go through the whole process and adopt your relative child and to become your real child.

QUIROZ: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right, I’m speaking with Heidi Quiroz, she is program manager with San Diego County Adoptions, and with Karny Stefan, CEO of Walden Family Services. And right now Krisha is in Clairemont. Hi, Krisha.

KRISHA (Caller, Clairemont): Hi. I’m going through foster parent training through the county right now. We did go to an orientation through Walden. But we want to take – I have a child with Down’s syndrome and we want to take kids with Down’s syndrome or other special needs, maybe regional center involved children. And I’m just having a really hard time finding out (audio dropout) do for that type (audio dropout) and so I was glad to hear your program this morning and just wanted to find out where’s the best route for us to go through training?

CAVANAUGH: I think we got most of that. Your cell phone was going in a little in and out there, Krisha. But she seems to have a Down’s syndrome child and is interested in opening her home to other Down’s syndrome children but is having a little trouble figuring out how to go about doing that. Could either of you give her any advice?

QUIROZ: Excuse me. I have a phone number I could give to you and I could also give out to the public. It’s 1-877-792-KIDS, k-i-d-s. And anyone can call into that number to find out information as to how to become a foster parent. If someone has already submitted an application to become foster parents and is in the training process, they should have a social worker assigned but if for whatever reason somebody’s not sure who their social worker is, they can call that number and somebody should be answering that phone. And if not, they should get right back to you to give you some more direction on how to become a foster parent. We would certainly welcome somebody and I – I think Walden would as well. Foster parents with special talents and skills such as the ability to raise children with Down’s syndrome or any other special needs, we would certainly welcome somebody like that to become a foster adoptive parent.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Karny, the unique challenges you face with the kids that come to Walden Family Service, what are some of those challenges.

STEFAN: Well, I can give you an example of one of our kids that is about to be adopted. We got her about 18 months ago. She was eight years old and 32 pounds but normal height. And she did not speak at all. We thought she was severely autistic. About – We put her in a home that is one of our most fabulous foster families and about the first three months, she would run upstairs and grab and hoard things. I mean, she’d hoard food from the kitchen and hide it and we believe, through the mental health – our mental health program because she’s in mental health with the therapist every week, she was probably kept in a crate as if she were an animal. It is now 18 months later. She is in an integrative 3rd grade classroom. She speaks. We didn’t know she had any ability to speak until she walked up to a picture of a cheetah on the wall in our playroom and she walked up and she says – starts petting it and she goes, hi, puppy. It was the first time anybody had ever heard her speak. You should’ve seen the room. I mean, it was – she just froze everyone. But now she speaks, she’s – we – she still has mild autism and – but it’s taken 18 months and to get a foster family to commit that first three months is grueling with a child like this as they sort of transition out of whatever has happened to them, and now she’s going to be adopted by this family, so…

CAVANAUGH: That’s an amazing story. You know, 18 months doesn’t sound like a long time when you consider how severe this child’s problems wa – And was that in conjunction – Of course, you have the foster parents but also what kind of classes and so forth were available for this child?

STEFAN: Well, we go through the training that I spoke of before. They also have a master’s level social worker come into their home every week. They have a skills trainer that comes in every week or takes them out of the home to do some skill building exercise every week. They also come in and meet with our therapists every week. So we’re wrapping quite a few services around them to really diagnose and then treat whatever’s happening, so the parents are getting a lot of support. And we also have a 24/7 hotline for them to reach a master’s level therapist at any time if there’s ever an issue with the child, so…

CAVANAUGH: Now, Walden Family Services received an adoption license from the State of California last December, so does it mean that that adoption license lets you see this full circle for the child from entering to becoming a part of someone else’s family?

STEFAN: Absolutely. It also lets them keep their same social worker after the adoption happens so we can continue helping them with training and care with the children. Because what happens is, is, you know, this child’s now nine and she’s doing really well but we don’t know what’s going to come out when she’s twelve, as she develops mentally what – from the trauma of her childhood. So something new may come up, so they may need services, they may need to be able to reach us again, so we do aftercare after the adoptions.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Karny Stefan. She’s CEO of Walden Family Services, and Heidi Quiroz, she’s program manager with San Diego County Adoptions. We’re talking about adoptions and foster care in San Diego. Kathy is in Lakeside. Good morning, Kathy.

KATHY (Caller, Lakeside): Good morning. I was a grandmother of a – well, actually, my daughter had a drug problem. She’d had it for years. And she had gotten clean and then she had a child and then she and her husband went off on another tear. And she ended up in Polinsky and I am a very good friend of the lady who runs – Nory Behana, who runs the FAKCE at Grossmont College, and she told me take her and adopt her. So we went through the entire process, the whole court process, my daughter and her husband were not ready to quit doing drugs at the time. And so at age – We got her at age two and by the time she was four we had adopted her. But I want to say that the system was just the most incredible help. They were – We found out she was in Polinsky at eleven o’clock one day and by five o’clock that night, we had gotten through all the paperwork. We’d gone through a home visit, and we were able to get her out in six hours of us knowing. They were so cooperative and they were very, very supportive throughout the adoption process and everything, and I just want to say that any relative caregiver who gets the opportunity to adopt a child, it’s worth it.

CAVANAUGH: Kathy, thank you so much for the call. It’s so interesting to have a really positive, strong experience with the system for adoptions and foster parenting. That must warm your heart, Heidi.

QUIROZ: Yes, it did. Thank you. I mean, the system is definitely complicated so I wasn’t quite sure where she was going with that but the County does have a very strong relationship with the Kinship community and, again, through the Grossmont College program that she referred to, because we know that grandparents and, you know, aunts and uncles and relative caregivers need a lot of support to raise their relative children.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Michael is in North Park. Good morning, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller, North Park): Good morning. Hi, Karny and Heidi. I’m a psychotherapist who works with families in foster care and adoption, children who’ve been traumatized, and I have a couple of challenges to throw out that I’ve seen as a trainer also for social workers and foster and adoptive parents in the community. And the first one is for the system, and that is we realize that we want kids to go back home but being in foster care is almost as traumatizing as the original abuse, so we really need foster parents in the community to be the kind of parents who will help the kids get back home or adopt if necessary. And that’s quite a challenge for foster family agencies who need to – who want to recruit and keep families. We need one stop for each child, that is either help them get back home or adopt them. No moving around. And the second challenge that’s in the news is international adoption and I have some experience in this area, too. And we have lots and lots of families going overseas to China and Ethiopia and different places, South America, to adopt children and they spend thousands and thousands of dollars, a lot in the perception that they can get babies with no problems. But I tell you, I treat these kids years after that adoption, and they would be much better served if they were to realize we have children in our own community, right down the street, in group homes, lingering in group homes, sometimes older, who need adoptive homes. And they would be more effective parents, more powerful parents, they would feel better as parents if they went down the block to adopt one of our kids instead of going overseas and dealing with the cultural and extra trauma issues of losing a whole country. So, Heidi and Karny, that’s your challenges.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for the call, Michael. Wow, we covered a lot of ground with that.

QUIROZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, what do you find motivates people to adopt or become foster parents? Let me – Now, let me ask you, Karny, what – is there a common trait?

STEFAN: Oh, absolutely. They love children.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

STEFAN: Absolutely. We see a lot of people come in wanting to be foster parents and it is an arduous process to become a foster parent. But that’s – it’s – the system is supposed to be that way because we want to know that we have got really quality, competent homes for these children. We want parents that are truly committed so we don’t want it to be so simple that we can just hand them a child in 24 hours time unless it’s a relative and then that’s the best situation for the child, absolutely. The other thing the caller mentioned was older kids, and anybody who’s interested in teenagers, there are a lot of teenagers out there that want to be adopted, that want to have what they call their forever family, and we would love to get more people to think about kids after they’re ten years old and whether or not they would consider bringing them into their homes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Heidi, does someone have to be a foster parent before they become an adoptive parent?

QUIROZ: Not necessarily. Our routine practice is that we ask families who come in to apply to adopt to get a foster care license because most of our children, we place while they’re still technically in the foster care system and we do that because we try to place children as early as possible into their forever home or into their permanent home because we want to improve the stability in the child’s life. I would completely agree with Michael that stability, placement stability, is so important for our children whether it’s a foster care placement or an adoptive placement, so in order for an adoptive family to have a child placed with them earlier in the process, they would need to have a foster care license, and we work very closely with our foster home licensing program. They attend the same classes together to make that happen simultaneously.

CAVANAUGH: You know, speaking of stability, there is a statistic I came across while researching this, and that is absolutely tragic: Half of the adoptions end in the first 18 months? Why is that?

QUIROZ: Half of the adoptions?

CAVANAUGH: Half of adoptions end in the first 18 months.

QUIROZ: Is that in San Diego County or…?

CAVANAUGH: I believe it’s statewide.

QUIROZ: Okay. Well, you know, I – in our particular county, a placement – we call it a disruption, an adoption disruption, is certainly what we don’t want to see when we place a child into a home with the expectation that this will be their permanent home. But disruption can be defined anywhere in that process. When a child is first placed in an adoptive home, they are placed, technically, as a foster care placement but with the idea that once the child – once the court terminates parental rights, that this would become an adoptive placement. We then move toward signing adoption placement papers and the state requires that we supervise an adoptive placement for at least six months before finalizing an adoption. And the reason we do that is because it can be difficult. When a child is first placed in a foster and adoptive home, oftentimes we’ll see what we call a honeymoon period and the child will be on his or her best behavior and then what we see is closer to adoption finalization or when things look like they’re going to be permanent, sometimes our kids get scared and they might start exhibiting some behavior problems and this is when the family really needs a lot of support. We also work with San Diego Youth and Community Services. They have a post-adoption support program where families can go for therapy, for respite for the parents, and it’s a very successful program with the idea that we want to avoid a disruption either prior to the legal finalization of an adoption or after. Now the state requires at least six months of supervision of an adoptive placement but in our county our practice is more six months to a year because we really want to make sure that the child’s comfortable, that the adoptive family is comfortable before we finalize that adoption and step out of their lives.

CAVANAUGH: And, Karny, you just mentioned the number of children who are teenagers who are looking for forever homes. What’s the breakdown of the children who are looking for placement in adoptive homes? Are most of the children over the age of ten?

STEFAN: I don’t know the exact statistics on the age, actually. I would be guessing. What I would like to comment though, on the – about half the adoptions fail within 18 months. One of the advantages of San Diego County and actually Orange County, we have a contract with Orange County. They have the same thing. But we have Polinsky here. In Orange County, they have Orangewood. And one of the things that happens when you have a kid in a temporary shelter that has as many diagnostic services that they provide at the beginning of the child coming in there, is that the placement workers can then match them so much more effectively with a foster family or a potential adoptive family than in some of the other counties we work in. And I won’t mention all the other counties we work in but some of them are a lot less effective because there isn’t that up-front work.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another caller, Denise in El Cajon. Good morning, Denise.

DENISE (Caller, El Cajon): Yes, good morning. I have a question about the – I heard that you all said they go to the adoptive – non-family members go to classes and they take the medical – how to treat the person, this is in response to the trach patient, they take medical classes. My question would be, why, for the sake of the kids, would you not require or why does the legislation not require for family members to go through the medical treatment because not all family members, just because they’re adopting or taking in the child as a foster child know how to treat the medical needs of that child. So what determines or dictates whether that happens? Why is that, I guess, so that…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Denise. Thank you for that call. And, Heidi?

QUIROZ: Well when I spoke about relative caregivers not being required to attend the training, what I was referring to is the basic PRIDE training, which is training for foster and adoptive parents. If a child has a particular special need, particularly a medical need, and a caregiver, whether it’s a foster parent or a relative caregiver needs training on how to care for that child, of course we would have that caregiver attend a training. For example, sometimes our local hospitals won’t even discharge a child until whoever’s going to be taking this child comes into the hospital and is trained on what the child’s needs are and if there’s any, you know, if there’s an apnea monitor or any kind of machinery that the person needs to learn how to use then, of course, we would send that person into that training.

CAVANAUGH: And I haven’t asked either of you and I really want to, a lot of children are placed into foster care with their brothers or their sisters. What about sibling groups? Do you make a high priority to place them together?

QUIROZ: Absolutely. Yes, we make every effort possible if it’s in the best interest of the children to place sibling groups together both in foster care and adoption as well, which can be a challenge. You know, sometimes we’ll call a foster parent and say we’ve got a sibling group of six, do you have…

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

QUIROZ: …do you have room? And many of our foster parents are only licensed for six so if we have to split up siblings, we don’t like to do that but we will make every effort to place them within the same community. Sometimes we’ll work with our foster parents that are friends with other foster parents and they’ll take – they’ll split the sibling group but they live near each other or their friends or they provide respite care for each other, so that we’re maintaining that relationship between the siblings.

CAVANAUGH: And in the couple of minutes that we have left, I don’t want to leave this subject without talking about the process that they call aging out of foster care and what kids face if they are teenagers, they get to the age of 18, they haven’t been adopted. What’s next for them? I hear that Walden provides a certain transition for the foster kids.

STEFAN: Yeah, we have an extensive program called Independent Futures where we work with the kids. We start at fifteen and a half and work with them pre-emancipation to help them prepare. And then we work with them from 18 until 24 or 25, however long is needed. And we do what a healthy family would do. So it’s everything from helping them get an apartment or stay in their foster home longer. We’ll help support that process. Get them into school. Get them into some kind of vocational training. But they also see our – we have – they’re called Teen Services Coordinators. They see the Teen Service Coordinator at least every month for the duration that they’re in Independent Futures so there’s always somebody checking back to see how they’re doing, to catch them before they slip or to help fix it if they do slip because all teenagers slip.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s state legislation now to try to ease that transition of aging out of foster care, which used to be just terribly traumatic. I mean, 18 and it was over, you were on your own. So let me ask you both, what would you like to tell our listeners who might be interested in adopting or becoming a foster care family? And let me start with you, Heidi.

QUIROZ: Well, I’d like our listeners to know that we really have a need in our community for both foster and adoptive parents. We talked about sibling groups, we have a need for both foster and adoptive families that are willing to take sibling groups. We have a need for families that are willing to take in older children, as Karny mentioned. And also children of color, we continue to have many African-American children waiting for adoptive homes and we’d really like to see an increase in families coming forward and wanting to adopt African-American children. I’d also like the community to know that adoption is not as difficult as people think. You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to own a home, you don’t have to be married. We’re really just looking for families who are loving, who are committed and who can be a permanent family for our children. We talked about children aging out of the system. If a child is adopted by their caregivers, they don’t age out of the system. They’re with their family that, you know, until their family kicks them out like the rest of us. And may – may…

CAVANAUGH: Isn’t that true?

QUIROZ: Yeah. And may I give a number out.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, certainly.

QUIROZ: It’s for if anyone’s interested in adopting through the County of San Diego, they can call 1-877-IADOPTU. And that’s the letter ‘u.’ And we have trained social workers available during business hours to answer any phone calls, invite you to an orientation meeting. So please call if anyone’s interested.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I am afraid we’ve run out of time, Karny, so I hope Heidi said everything that you hoped to.

STEFAN: She did, she said everything.

CAVANAUGH: And if anybody want – didn’t get a chance to jot down that number, you can access it by going to These – KPBS.org/TheseDays. We will have that number and the links up on our website later today. I want to thank my guests, Karny Stefan, CEO of Walden Family Services, and

Heidi Quiroz, program manager with San Diego County Adoptions. Thank you both for coming in today.

QUIROZ: Thank you, Maureen.

STEFAN: Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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