Foster Parents Throw Lifeline to Youngsters : Charity Group Drums Up Aid to Help Third World Peoples to Solve Their Own Problems

Times Staff Writer

Kenneth Phillips has 61,000 clients--"foster children" whose foster parents almost never get to meet them, seldom speak their languages and know of them only through letters sent faithfully from far lands.

Phillips, 44, is national executive director of the $16-million-a-year Foster Parents Plan U.S.A., the domestic arm of an international charity with headquarters in Warwick, R.I., and national offices in seven donor countries. With all its branches, the program has an international roster of 263,000 foster children, including the 61,000 supported by American sponsors.

Phillips thinks of the organization as sort of a non-governmental Peace Corps; foster parents do not put money directly into the pockets of the familiar, heartbreaking urchins who peer from those magazine ads but, rather, provide financial aid to help their Third World communities find long-range solutions to problems with which their families have grappled for generations.

"Your Love Can Change a Lifetime"--those are the words on a fund-raising brochure that explains that it is not an adoption agency, that foster children remain with their own families but that close personal relationships are encouraged through regular exchange of correspondence and, if possible, a personal visit.

The mission of Foster Parents Plan has changed since its founding almost 50 years ago to help the children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War and its subsequent emergence as an organization providing aid to the children of war-torn Europe of the late '40s.

In the '50s, the printed fund-raising appeal was almost a cliche, perhaps a legless boy zipping around with artificial legs on a shiny new bike, the recipient of Foster Parents Plan largess. Today, the beautiful faces of children still smile from the ads--FFP is not unaware of its greatest asset--but the biggest difference in before-and-after photos of a child might be something as subtle as a new roof now sheltering the family's house.

The foster children today are "representative," explained Phillips, each representing hundreds of thousands of other children who have been denied life's basics. The enrolled child is a member of a "client family" that has met a field director's criteria for eligibility, based primarily on economics, but also on a family's willingness to work to better itself.

Phillips explained how FPP works: "If the focus (in a community) is on education, and the school systems are in place, then ours would be only a child-focused scholarship. But if there are no schools, then obviously what has to be done is to build schools and provide school supplies. Or take health care. There's no way, all alone, to help a child who has intestinal parasites; we would work for improved sanitation and education of the parents about clean water."

Within a given family, the foster child might be any of the siblings between 6 and 12 years of age. Frankly, Phillips said, that could be whichever one happened to be home when the caseworker came to enroll the family. But the child chosen is more than symbolic; the child becomes the human link in this partnership between haves and have-nots.

Extreme Poverty Cases

As a rule, the $22-a-month support sent by the foster parent in America does not go directly to the child, although in extreme poverty cases some of it might. More often, that cash would be used to respond with programs to identified community needs. Special occasion cash gifts from the foster parent are limited to $25 a year.

Direct services to the child might be preventive dentistry, literacy classes, provision of school fees or a revolving loan fund. The child's family might receive job counseling, seed and fertilizers or medicine and drugs.

The list of FPP countries is an atlas of Third World nations: India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Haiti, Mali, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Kenya. . . .

Community projects have included inoculation clinics, building of latrines, midwife training, well digging, reforestation, construction of market stalls and establishment of cooperatives.

Said Phillips: "Many communities in Africa do not have cash systems. So giving them (money) really won't help them because they wouldn't have ways of spending it. Or, if they did, it would quickly get out of control and distort and disrupt the whole economic system."

Phillips' goal is to have 100,000 foster parents in the United States within two years; aggressive recruitment resulted in a jump from 42,000 to 56,000 between 1983 and 1984. He even dreams of the parent roster worldwide reaching 5 million someday. (Currently, there are 250,000 foster parents in 22 countries).

Phillips came to Foster Parents Plan in 1972 from the Save the Children Federation, where he spent 10 years. Technically, he is now in competition with his former employer for sponsor dollars, but he sees it a little differently: "I see our major competitors as being the liquor industry, fine clothes and trips."

Growth Is Welcomed

And he emphasized: "We absolutely, definitely, totally and completely do not want to grow, or to find new foster parents, at the expense of other sponsorship organizations. Growth for any one of us is going to come from people saying, 'I just got an increase and I'm going to spend more of it on this kind of activity.' Obviously, I prefer that it's us."

(Although Foster Parents Plan is the largest organization of its type, there are more than 30 agencies with similar missions, among the larger ones the Save the Children Federation and the Christian Children's Fund.)

There are differences. Some are religiously connected organizations. Some have strong governmental ties. Foster Parents Plan is different in that its programs abroad are multinationally funded and its international board of directors, the decision-making body, is drawn from all seven donor countries.

Phillips stressed, too, Foster Parents Plan's dedication to the proposition "that communication between the foster parent and the foster child is important in and of itself, as a contribution to world understanding and peace and, more particularly, just making people better people."

In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, a child was wandering the streets of Santander, Spain, carrying in his pocket a penciled message:

"This is Jose. . . I am his father. When Santander falls, I shall be shot. Whoever finds my son, I beg of him to care for him for my sake."

The child came to the attention of an English war correspondent, John Langdon-Davies, who, touched by the plight of the children of war, founded Foster Parent's Scheme for Children in Spain to link the orphans to people in other countries who could provide both love and financial aid.

In December, 1937, he and Eric Muggeridge, a British social worker who had been involved in establishing children's hostels in Spain and in evacuation of children from Spanish war zones, came to the United States to establish an American committee, later chartered as Foster Parents Plan for Spanish Children.

To respond to needs of refugees fleeing the Nazis in Europe, the organization changed its name again in 1939, this time to Foster Parent's Plan for War Children. At the outset of World War II, programs were established in England for refugee children traumatized by separation from their families. After the war, it expanded throughout central Europe, later to Greece and China.

But by the '50s, the European economy was recovering to the point that the countries could provide for their own needy and most of the European programs were phased out. Foster Parents Plan for War Children got yet another new name: Foster Parents Plan, Inc.

Along with this came a decision to concentrate assistance in Third World countries. Today FPP, once a provider of cash subsidies, gift parcels and emergency medical aid, calls itself a "professional development agency."

Problems Were Huge

It is a concept that dates from the 1960s when FPP in Asia saw that the needs of those children and their families went far beyond what had been the temporary needs of postwar Europe. The problems were huge, including migration of rural families to cities and the massive unemployment that resulted. The agency responded with adult literacy programs, vocational training and job placement services.

Group and community projects is an idea that took root in Bolivia and in Korea in the mid-1970s. Today, said Phillips, the organization looks for "long-range solutions rather than temporary ones. And that's the hardest part of what we do. It's easy to meet a basic need today; money does solve that. But it's much harder to not create dependency. That's a challenge."

Direct participation by the families is encouraged, if not required, in programs such as health care, vocational training, agricultural cooperatives, plastic surgery for children with cleft palates, sponsorship of a traditional festival, techniques of fish-raising, establishment of credit unions and family planning clinics.

FPP has programs neither in Ethiopia (where it operated in 1974-75, until the revolution) nor in Somalia, two areas currently hard hit by famine. Phillips said his organization is not geared to disaster relief and, unlike other agencies, has no expertise in the collection and delivery of food. (A year ago, when there was a potato crop failure and widespread famine in Bolivia, FPP did set up feeding stations, but also provided seed potatoes for a new crop.)

Foster Parents Plan prefers to talk about progress that doesn't show in poignant pictures from the Third World--a community garden growing vegetables, a schoolroom with proper desks, a sewing class.

Price Waterhouse audits for FPP show that 25% to 26% of total contributions go to administrative overhead, which Phillips considers "in the standard range of what any vigorous and growing national charity should be spending."

The organization has been examined on an ongoing basis by the National Charities Information Bureau, a New York-based independent not-for-profit agency founded in 1918. William T. White, vice president, said, "They continue to meet our standards."

His only negative criticism of Foster Parents Plan was that "it was not clear at times in some of their appeals that the community as a whole is being helped rather than only a specific child," though, he said, this is also true of other agencies. By bureau figures, the administrative overhead is 27%, well within what the bureau deems acceptable.

White added: "It's very important (in light of recent allegations about the failure of some agencies working in Ethiopia to deliver) to pass the word that many of these organizations are doing good. The majority are very respectable and hard working. It's a shame a few problems can upset the whole cart." His organization concluded in September, 1984, that it was "not in a position to report that Inter-Aid, Inc. (the controversial Camarillo-based agency) meets its eight basic standards."

Ninety percent of FFP's contributions come from "foster parents" who have a relationship with an individual child; when they enroll as sponsors, it is explained to them that their money is used in a variety of ways, not just as a stipend for their child.

The foster parent-child relationship is this: The sponsor receives a photograph of the child and a case history of the child and family. A regular exchange of letters between sponsor and child is encouraged and Phillips views this as vital to the program's success, the idea that a concerned "parent" is regularly sending words of encouragement and concern.

When a foster parent is enrolled, he or she receives a newsletter telling about the child's country--its geographical location, climate, cities, health and education standards and even a mini-glossary of words in the child's tongue.

The foster parent also receives an annual progress report about the program in the child's community. Typically, it might read, "Two children stayed in school, the pig project failed, the house was repaired and we did more about nutrition. . . ." If the child's mother were pregnant, the foster parent might be asked to write to her on the importance of prenatal care; if the child is doing poorly in math, a few words about buckling down might be sent.

Staff overseas translates letters from the children and staff in Rhode Island those from the sponsors; all mail in both directions is monitored before forwarding from headquarters at 155 Plan Way, Warwick, R.I. Addresses of sponsors and children are never exchanged. "We don't censor mail," noted Phillips, "unless there's something really inappropriate." Occasionally there is a problem, such as the new sponsor who was asking his foster child to send obscene photographs; it turned out the sponsor was serving a jail term. Occasionally, a sponsor turns out to be a religious fanatic bent on a join-or-be-damned crusade. Once in a while a child writes asking for money; those letters are returned to sender.

There is "major debate" internally, Phillips said, about a possible name change for the organization, one that would more accurately reflect what it does. He likes the present name, even though, he acknowledged, it does not make clear that FFP's programs are overseas and that it is for children who live with their own families. He hopes to see that resolved by addition of a logo or slogan.

Although 95% of its $16-million budget is private donations, FPP does get $1 million a year in grant money from the U.S. Agency for International Development to help communities develop income-producing projects. Phillips pointed out that the money comes into a central office and then is distributed throughout the world so "there is no political connection.

"Our program in a country like El Salvador would be seriously jeopardized in my opinion," Phillips said, "if one side or the other saw us as being funded by any government. That's true in Indonesia and it's true in the Philippines, and in half the countries we're working in it's an issue."

With the exception of the director, all staff members in the 22 countries are citizens of those countries and get on-the-job training. The U.S. program is run totally from Warwick; there are no local offices, although there are volunteer support groups in 40 cities, including Los Angeles.

He doesn't hesitate to say that FPP "capitalizes" on its celebrity foster parents and seeks new ones for television endorsements. "We are not set up to have big charity balls," he explained, "and I don't think we ever will be because we're looking for people who are not oriented to that."

A few foster parents, perhaps 200 each year, actually visit their foster children. Eventually, though, the children grow up and contact is lost.

Phillips, who dropped out of a Ph.D. program in English literature in the '60s when he saw its "irrelevance to the world," first met his predecessor, Reinhart Gutmann, when both were representing their respective organizations and battling for their share of funds, as chair and member, respectively, of a committee of federated international organizations.

Gutmann apparently liked his adversary's style; when he decided to retire, he asked Phillips if he'd be interested in his job.

Since taking over, Phillips has visited programs in El Salvador, where FPP is providing education and health aid to families in San Salvador and in Chalatenango; in Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia. Of El Salvador and Nicaragua, where there is a new program, he said: "Clearly, in a violent society, we have to be more careful about staff. In El Salvador, we are less likely to have large meetings. When I was there I did not drive from San Salvador out into the rural areas. I was very careful. It's remarkable that, with one exception, we have had no trouble. One staff member just disappeared." In other countries, he said, "We have had threats on staff, and that's of grave concern."

A recent letter from Berta de Penata, head of donor services in El Salvador, told of the suffering, and thanked Foster Parents for "listening" to the voices of the suffering children.

FPP is not without its critics, many of whom feel it should be helping people here at home. Phillips said: "I feel that the needs in the developing world are so much greater. I mean, we're working in countries where governments do not have any social security, any welfare, any unemployment insurance. Also, the amount of money that we're talking about--$22 a month--would not accomplish that much in the United States. And I think that, in a way, we do contribute to the United States. By being involved personally in an organization like ours, people's own lives change and they become more caring and we can become a more caring, more compassionate, more nurturing society."

When a sponsor signs up, he or she is given a choice: Boy or girl? Very young or older? From which country? "Most people, in fact, leave the choice to us," Phillips said. "There is a preference for girls, and that may be because most of our foster parents, three quarters, are women. Unfortunately, there seems to be a slight preference for young children."

The international board, on which members of the national boards of the United States, Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, Japan, Belgium and the United Kingdom sit, sets criteria for participating countries and also makes decisions on where programs will be established.

Because Foster Parents Plan is non-governmental, non-political and not church-affiliated, and its funding is multinational, Phillips said, it is rarely affected by widespread anti-American feelings in some of the countries where it works. As he put it, " 'Yankee go home' does not apply to a program like ours."

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