Angels Watch Over Them

Coastal Woman Magazine | June 21, 2008
by Jill S. Harrison

“It was love at first sight,” says Christie Gray between playful kisses her 10-month-old foster daughter, Hope, plants on her cheek. Gray and her husband thought about fostering a baby for almost a year before deciding to commit with Angels Foster Care of Santa Barbara. “There was a little bit of fear before,” she says, “but the second we saw her, we knew it was meant to be.” To protect their identities, we have changed Hope’s name and those of her foster family for this story.

Gary, her husband, and their two sons, ages 3 and 5, are one of 22 Santa Barbara County families certified with Angels Foster Care of Santa Barbara, an independent, nonprofit foster family agency focusing on toddlers and infants.

Witnessing the disappointing state of the county foster care program drove Meichelle Arntz to start the agency. As a volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates, Arntz watched the two brothers she worked with move between six foster homes in 12 months. She saw how the frequent moving affected the boys and recognized the need for children to stay in one stable, loving home.

“You can take a normal kid, and they get moved and moved, and it’s such a traumatic experience that they get these attachment disorders,” Arntz explains. “Eventually they just go ‘Why bother?’ because they feel that once they get attached, they are just going to get taken away again.”

“Determined to make a positive impact on the foster care system, Arntz liked the model developed by Angels Foster Family Network in San Diego, which works to give foster children the opportunity to develop bonding skills. “Bonding is learned process,” Arntz explains, adding that is children don’t learn to bond by age 2, they can develop attachment disorders, which result in the inability to care for and empathize with others. To help prevent this, Angels of Santa Barbara adopted methods proven successful in San Diego and began placing children in 2006.

Unlike traditional foster homes, which accept up to six foster children at a time, Angels’ families commit to fostering only one child or sibling group at a time, until the court determines a final home - either reunited with the birth family or adopted - which typically takes about one year. Families also must have a stay-at-home parent to take care of the child full time. “[Children] need to feel a part of a family and loved and wanted,” Gray explains. “That’s why Angels is so needed. Children need that stability and bonding.” After 60 days in an Angels home, all of the children appear attached, bonded and trusting, Arntz says.

When the Gray family took in Hope, she was six week sold. Photos from that time show a sad, scared and listless baby. “She was obviously not used to getting attention,” Gray says, as the now-10-month-old giggles and romps from toy to toy in the center of the living room. “But she got out of that fast. We held her a lot and made sure she was attaching to us. She has just blossomed.”
When Child Protective Services (CPS) takes a child into custody, it initially hopes to find relatives who can adequately care for the child; if it finds none, however, the child enters foster care. To decide whether the child goes to county foster care or an independent agency, such as Angels, CPS looks for caregivers who best match the needs of a particular child, says Cindy Nott, the child welfare services division chief for Santa Barbara County. Considerations include location (to make parents visits possible), the need to keep siblings together and a family’s ability to meet a child’s specific needs. “If we have the opportunity to send a baby to Angels, its great for us,” Nott says. “They work with a limited age group, but they really specialize and give great care.”

One key to Angels’ success is the in-depth screening families must go through before they can foster; a process that disqualifies about 30% of applicants. Angels’ potential foster parents must talk to social workers, complete application forms, have fingerprints taken and undergo a medical exam, psychological test and home study. Next comes 16 hours of training on parenting, the court system and other basics of foster parenting. Families complete these steps at their own pace, which ranges between six weeks and three months.
Gray says her family adjusted easily to having Hope, and though she initially worried about how her sons would react, they have done great. “The boys love having a sister,” she says. “My 5-year-old even said that he’s happy to give her a home for a year.” Arntz believes children adjust to fostering better than adults do.

The goal of foster care is to return the children to their biological parents. If a child’s birth family proves it can provide a safe, stable home, the baby will go home. If not, the child becomes available for adoption, and sometimes foster families adopt their foster child.
The Gray family hopes to adopt Hope if the opportunity arises. “Our goal is to have three kids, but we want a child who needs a home,” Gray explains. “We’re not trying to take her away from her family.”

Though Gray admits that letting go of Hope would be difficult, she says adults need to put aside their feelings and consider the child’s best interests. “If she stays, fantastic; if not, of course, we’ll miss her; but I’ll be happy that her parents have straightened out their lives,” Gray says. “There are hundreds of other children out there who need loving homes, and sooner or later it will just work out and one will stay.”

Angels Foster Care is looking for more families to help children in need of foster homes. Right now, the Santa Barbara County foster care system contains about 900 children, and not enough homes exist to accommodate them. To find homes for Santa Barbara’s foster infants and toddlers, Angels needs at least 20 new families this year, especially those willing to take in sibling groups.

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