Foster Parents to Get a Break

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County foster parents and relatives caring for preschool-aged children will be eligible for some time off, thanks to a grant from the group that administers the county's portion of tobacco tax money.

County supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to accept a $142,333 grant from First 5 Ventura County, which disburses an estimated $12 million a year that the county receives through Proposition 10. The 1998 initiative added a 50-cent-per-pack surtax on cigarettes, to be used for early-childhood development programs around the state.

The county grant, renewable for three years, will allow foster parents and relatives providing care to children through age 5 to obtain up to 12 hours a month of respite care for the children.

"This is of No. 1 importance for the foster family," said Trish Cavanaugh, director of foster services for the county's Human Services Agency. "The whole goal is to provide stability for foster families, so they can stay with it even when times are tough."

The county has about 125 children in foster care and 200 in the care of relatives other than their parents, Cavanaugh said. The grant should be available to about 70% of the foster families and 40% to 50% of relatives.

Respite-care providers, who will be paid $12 an hour, must undergo fingerprinting and background checks, take classes in CPR and first aid, and undergo eight hours of training. They will not be able to take the children from their guardians' homes unless they are also licensed by the county for foster care.

Debbie Steele, a 55-year-old AT&T; account executive who lives in Ventura, has been doing respite care for three years and knows how much it's needed. Currently, Steele is paid by foster parents -- $14 a day, although she doesn't always take the money because it comes out of the caregivers' monthly stipend. She said she would do it even if she didn't get paid.

But if the grant means more people may volunteer, Steele said she's all for it. "Foster parents are saints," she said.

She just watched over one infant, she said, so the foster parent could take another child to a dance competition. In a separate case, she took in an infant so the parent could take three older children to Disneyland.

"But sometimes parents just get sick, or exhausted," Steele said.

For information about volunteering for foster or respite care, call Cavanaugh at 652-7594.

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