O.C. Short of Foster Homes for Latinos


A surge in the number of Latino children entering Orange County’s foster care system has resulted in a critical shortage of Latino foster homes, according to social services officials.

As a result, already traumatized children are held in emergency group homes twice as long as white children. Then many find themselves in foster homes a county away from their parents and siblings, thrust into an environment where everything from the language to the food is foreign.

In Orange County, the population of Latino children in foster care has grown more rapidly than anywhere else in the state. But to a lesser degree, the same phenomenon has occurred in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and other counties that have experienced sizable growth in their Latino communities.

Statewide, one fourth of the more than 86,000 children in foster care are Latino. But children’s advocates say the number of Latino foster parents has not kept pace.


“We haven’t kept up with the changing demographics,” said Larry Leaman, executive director of the Orange County Social Services Agency, which oversees foster care placements. “Now we have to play a catch-up game.”

In an effort to tap the Latino community, the agency has asked the Board of Supervisors for permission to hire three more senior social workers, at least one of whom will be a Spanish-speaking Latino.

At the same time, the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services plans to launch the Community-Based Placement Project in January in the Pacoima area. Its goal is to attract more Latino as well as African-American foster parents.

State law requires social workers to make every effort to place children with foster parents of the same race or ethnic group. They must demonstrate that they have tried every available avenue before the Latino children can be placed in homes with non-Latinos.


In the interim, the children live at temporary shelters, which, some social services officials lament, have become more like holding facilities.

A recent Orange County study by the Social Services Agency found that nonwhite foster children were twice as likely as whites to spend 60 days or more at the Orangewood Children’s Home, Orange County’s shelter for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

The numbers are not encouraging.

Just 12% of all foster homes have at least one parent who speaks Spanish, according to social services officials. Many of the children themselves are bilingual, but their parents, who came to the United States as adults, speak only Spanish.


“Sometimes the child’s natural parents don’t speak a word of English,” said Barbara Labitzke, foster home development coordinator for the county of Orange. “If you place the child in a home where not a word of Spanish is spoken, the parents feel threatened by the foster parents. Here is this other person who doesn’t even speak their language.”

That becomes important, Labitzke said, because it is hoped that the natural parents will visit the child and work toward a reunion.

Labitzke says cultural compatibility is also key in helping troubled children regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives.

“You’ve got a child who has been removed from their home because of abuse, molestation and all those things that bring kids into foster care,” Labitzke said. “If they are plucked from their home and placed somewhere where the smells coming from the kitchen are not familiar . . . (and) the language is not the same, it’s very traumatic.”


So far, social services officials in Orange County and elsewhere in the state have had limited success recruiting Latino foster parents, largely because few of the recruiters and social workers can speak Spanish.

And while the Orange County Social Services Agency has speakers who address community groups about foster parenting, its only Spanish-speaker recently moved to Texas.

“How are you going to reach people if the recruiters, the licensing people and the social workers--none of them speak Spanish,” said Richard Trujillo, manager for the California Department of Social Services foster care recruitment program. “Even if you have Spanish-speaking recruiters, if you don’t have Spanish-speaking support staff, the Latino foster parents are going to drop out.” Many counties are turning to outside, private agencies to help find temporary homes for Latino children.

Craig Zacuto, executive director of the Beta Foster Care Agency in Laguna Niguel, says the obstacles are complex.


For one, he said, many of the children have siblings who also are in foster care. By law, siblings must be housed together or as near to each other as possible.

It can be difficult to find parents willing to accept more than one child. And some of those who are willing can’t meet strict licensing guidelines.

For example, the so-called “bedroom rule” allows no more than two children per bedroom, thus excluding larger families that might otherwise provide loving, nurturing homes, Zacuto said.

With nowhere else to go, many children end up in emergency shelters or in placements out of county, far from their natural parents.


Lisa Perez, 34, and her husband, David, are one of the rare exceptions. They are foster parents to a 10-month old girl, her 22-month old half-brother and another 3-year-old boy.

“I think a lot of the problem is that there has been a lot of bad publicity” about incorrigible children, said Perez, a law student. “I think if people understood more about how the system works, it wouldn’t be a big issue for people.”

In Los Angeles County--home to nearly half of the state’s 86,000 foster children, social services officials are attempting to address this problem with the Community-Based Placement Project--a partnership between the Department of Children’s Services, California Department of Social Services, Youth Law Center and the Irvine Foundation.

The goal is to reach prospective Latino and African-American foster parents through targeted mailings, boys and girls clubs, schools, churches and other community-based organizations, said Victoria Pipkin, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Children’s Services.


“The whole thing is to place children in foster homes in their community,” Pipkin said. “It offers a measure of stability so you don’t totally uproot the child.”

Orangewood Admissions

The percentage of Latino admissions to Orangewood Children’s Home more than doubled from 1986 to 1992, the most recent year for which information is available:

1986 1988 1992 White 69% 60% 50% Latino 15% 28% 36% Black 8% 7% 6% Asian, other 8% 5% 8%


* The Orange County Social Services Agency is seeking Latino foster parents. Information: (800) 426-2233, Ext. 883

Source: Orange County Social Services Agency