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Social Services and a Changing County : Latino Efforts in Health, Foster Care Worthy of Support

The 1990 federal census showed that Orange County’s ever-increasing Latino population had reached more than 550,000, nearly 25% of county residents. That is a number large enough to demand recognition in both the private and public sectors.

A coalition of 30 Latino doctors took note of the changing demographics and announced they would establish eight comprehensive-care centers in the county. From a business standpoint, that would seem to make sense. But it is the group’s broader goals that are worthy of notice and support.

The physicians said they wanted to bring bilingual, culturally sensitive care to the low-income Latinos of Orange County, and keep the doors open longer to serve those needing help after hours and on weekends. Health care providers said patients were likely to be better served by someone who knew their language and their culture. Grouping dozens of doctors also makes economic sense, because the coalition can seek managed-care contracts, the current trend in health care, especially in California. Insurers and businesses are looking for organizations of doctors that can serve the various medical needs of employees, rather than relying on sole practitioners or sending workers from city to city seeking the care of specialists.

The doctors joined together in June and have won endorsements of their plans from several leaders within the Latino community. They also have made their presence felt outside the examining room, as with this summer’s donation of time and money to a walkathon for kindergarten students that was intended to provide role models for youngsters. A founding member of the organization, Dr. Fernando Montelongo, said members wanted to get involved in scholarships and voter registration, both causes that deserve support.

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Another cause worthy of support by Latinos is foster parenting. Social workers say the number of Latino children entering the foster care system in Orange County has increased dramatically, but there is a shortage of temporary homes. Instead, the youths are admitted to Orangewood Children’s Home, where nonwhite foster children were twice as likely as whites to spend 60 days or more, according to a recent county study. There is a need for African American foster parents as well, because state law requires social workers to make every effort to place children with foster parents of the same race or ethnic group. When foster parents are unavailable, children can wind up in temporary shelters.

Foster care is intended to be a temporary solution, with the long-range goal the reunification of children and parents. When that proves impossible, children usually become eligible for adoption.

A county official specializing in foster care said that many children speak both Spanish and English, but their natural parents often speak only Spanish. The trauma of being separated from parents deepens if children are placed in a home where the adults speak no Spanish, the official said.

The county shares in the blame, because it has so few Spanish-speaking social workers and recruiters of foster parents. Social service officials need to recruit more Spanish speakers and ensure they appear before Latino groups to solicit foster parents. The head of the county Social Services Agency acknowledged the problem, saying officials did not keep up with the changing demographics. But he must see to it that the county solves the problem, not just acknowledge it.

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Orange County has changed; social services must keep up.


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