No Place Like Home

Social Workers Face a Record Shortage of Foster Homes

by Martha Sadler

Ashley%20Oleary1.jpgLast summer, about 400 children in Santa Barbara County were under the custody of Child Welfare Services (CWS); this month, CWS is responsible for more than 500 foster children. Lacking the 100 extra homes to shelter them, social workers are forced to shift children around more than ever, with some younger children being temporarily confined to group homes intended for teens with severe behavioral problems, and others being moved out of the county temporarily or into already jam-packed houses. What’s a social worker to do?

Ashley%20Oleary2.jpgLate last year, Santa Barbara County’s CWS Department decided to dedicate one fulltime social worker to sniffing out blood relatives and other “non-relative extended family members” willing and able to take in nieces and nephews, cousins twice removed, students, or neighbors. Though this system has helped to alleviate the problem, it has not been able to offset the ever-growing need for foster homes. This month, CWS took the additional step of hiring a full-time public relations specialist, Anne Rodriguez. An 11-year veteran of the department with a wicked sense of humor and an unassailably positive attitude, Rodriguez is now charged with finding strangers willing to take in one or several abused children.

Ashley%20Oleary3.jpg“Here in Santa Barbara,” Rodriguez said, “we have no home that will take a teenager or a family group.” There are currently 35 licensed foster families between Carpinteria and Goleta that have vacancies, but most of these vacancies are limited by preferences: One family is willing to take a Latino girl up to the age of five; another is looking for a white infant; a third will consider only a black child. Then there are the licensed foster parents — many of whom are working single women — who can’t take placements because CWS can’t offer them the money required to provide childcare. Legislation to create such funding would help enormously, according to Rodriguez, and has been discussed in Sacramento, but has not yet materialized.

Other legislative reforms have already improved the lot of foster children and families. A decade ago, social service law generally discouraged foster parents from thinking in terms of adopting the same children they sheltered, out of caution that they would sabotage reunification efforts with the children’s biological families.

Because that philosophy militated against emotional bonding, the pendulum is swinging the other way, with foster parents gaining ever greater legal standing, almost on par with blood relatives. Biological parents are told as soon as their child is removed from their home that two efforts will take place simultaneously: One social worker will try to reunify them with their child, while another works on plan B — adoption — to go into effect immediately if reunification fails. Although this is certainly better than discouraging bonding between foster children and parents, Rodriguez said it also means families are forced to be “schizophrenic.” For instance, if biological parents fail to show up for a meeting with their child, the foster family is torn between feeling sorry for the child and cheering because it brings adoption one step closer. Given all the uncertainty of the foster years, the ideal foster family is willing to adopt, but also willing to remain a part of the child’s life if he/she goes back to his/her biological family, which happens 56 percent of the time.

In another legislative victory for foster parents, this January the state made it much easier for foster parents to hire babysitters by getting rid of the special certification process — including CPR training and fingerprinting — previously required for sitters of foster children, who get paid little more than typical babysitters. Now, foster parents can hire a neighborhood teenager and take a night off, just like any other parent. This has cut down on such horror stories as parents seeking to offload a foster child for a week or more so that the rest of the family can go on vacation without them. The January law extended the “prudent parent” reforms of 2003 that made it possible for foster children to go to a ballgame or dinner at a friend’s home without a CPR-certified guardian, just like any other child.

These reforms are a step in the right direction, but they’re not a panacea, and families unprepared for the challenges of foster parenthood frequently drop out of the program. Though foster children may hail from Dickensian situations, they rarely resemble the angelic orphan Oliver. Neglected children, for instance, tend to hoard food under their beds. And Rodriguez described one child who was reasonably cooperative and sanguine until her foster father offered to read a bedtime story, at which point the girl “went Axel Rose on him.” Where she came from, “bedtime story” was a double entendre for sexual abuse. But perhaps the hardest fact of life for foster parents is that their efforts are not likely to be rewarded with a thank-you from the children they’ve rescued.

Unrealistic expectations are at least as tricky for foster children to deal with. Ashly O’Leary — now 19 and independent — entered foster care at the age of 14 and spent her adolescence shuffled between her mother, her father, group homes, emergency shelters, in-town foster homes, and foster homes in faraway cities. One foster family erroneously told her that she could stay as long as she wanted, a promise she took to heart. “Out of all my foster parents,” she said, “they hurt me the most because they were the ones I loved.” One of the worst things about the instability of foster care is that there is no place for children to turn after they reach 18 years of age. The one constant in Ashly’s life has been her boyfriend, five years her senior, with whom she now shares a room.

Ashly worries about a friend of hers, who will turn 18 in less than a month and be emancipated from the system — with no money, no job, and no place to live. “I’m so scared for her,” Ashly said. “She had $100 a few days ago, and now she has $60. If you can’t even be strong enough to wait to buy the cute jeans now, what about when she’s out?” Ashly noted that many of her friends come out of the system oddly passive, unwilling to make decisions or lift a finger to help themselves. Judy Osterhage — who provides pre-emancipation and foster parent training — says this helplessness is particularly tied to life in group homes. “They are not even allowed to use knives,” she said. Although she admits most of these teens have histories of violence, she asked, “What message does that send … about your competence?”

At a recent foster care family night organized by Osterhage — in which parents and children ate popcorn and watched Homeward Bound — a 17-year-old boy living in an emergency shelter offered some advice for people considering foster parenthood. He warned of social workers’ constant requests for foster parents to take in more children. In fact, several may call in a day because, as he said, “What else can they do?” But you have to set clear limits, the boy said. “Don’t take on more than you can handle.”

On Friday, August 25, Judy Osterhage will give an orientation for people considering foster parenthood. Call (866) 899-2649 or visit for more information.

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