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

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

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


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.