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Countywide : Time of Need for Foster Families

Caring for thousands of abused and neglected children has been a formidable challenge for Orange County, even before it declared bankruptcy last month.

Now, as the Social Services Agency grapples with budget cuts of $5.9 million, county officials are reaching out to the community for additional support.

“Foster families are our big, big need right now,” said Gene Howard, director of Children’s Services for the county. There are only 550 foster families, he pointed out, while 3,000 children--from newborns to teen-agers--need to be placed in homes.

Especially in demand, Howard said, are families that can take in brothers and sisters. About half of the county’s foster children are siblings.

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“Oftentimes we have to split them up and put them in different foster homes, which we really don’t like to do,” he said.

Howard wants to double the number of foster parents, even though recruiting them is tough.

“There are a lot of two-parent, working families in Orange County,” he said. “There’s not a lot of energy left for extras, like taking care of another kid.”

One of the county’s newest foster parents is Monica Milstead, a Xerox sales executive who was “loaned” for all of 1994 to work as community relations director at ARK, Services for Abused Children. This private, nonprofit agency strives to improve the quality of foster care in Orange County.

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“Foster parenting is a wonderful alternative for people with small families, parents with grown children, infertile couples, single people and older people,” Milstead said.

“I’m divorced and I want to be a mom,” said the Newport Beach resident, who is caring for an infant born malnourished and exposed to drugs. “He’s now at 100% in every way,” she said. “He’s very good-natured and shows wonderful promise for the future.”

“I love being a mom,” she added. “My car and my house are now ‘Early Baby.’ That’s my new design scheme.”

Howard describes as “the ultimate sacrifice” the decision by Milstead and others to care for children who suffered from severe neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse at the hands of their biological parents.

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But being a foster parent is not the only way to help out, Howard said. Volunteers are needed at private agencies such as ARK, he said, and also at Orangewood Children’s Home. Orangewood, the county’s “portal of entry” for foster care, is a 233-bed emergency shelter that is typically filled to capacity.

Volunteers “provide the extra lap, that extra hug, those arms to just make a baby feel better,” said Rose Carey, community program specialist at Orangewood.

Some of these children were exposed to crack and other drugs in their mothers’ wombs and now require special care.

Volunteers can assist older children, Carey said, by teaching them arts and crafts, playing games and conducting other activities in conjunction with staff members. Older children, “especially those with emotional and behavioral problems,” sometimes remain at Orangewood for months, Carey said.

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Another way to improve conditions for foster children, Howard said, is by donating items such as clothing, toys, rockers and cribs to Orangewood.

For more information on becoming a foster parent or volunteering at Orangewood Children’s Home, call (714) 704-8704.


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