Angels Work to Help Foster Children

Santa Barbara News-Press | December 28, 2007
by Nora K. Wallace

Meichelle Arntz looks around the Santa Ynez Valley and knows there are people who can help her.

A few families have heeded her call, and now she's on the lookout for more.

Ms. Arntz is the founding force behind Angels Foster Care of Santa Barbara County, a licensed private foster family agency she started a year ago to provide "stable, loving, safe homes to children" in need. The agency is now branching out into the North County, specifically looking for homes in the Santa Ynez Valley and Lompoc area.

Her agency works independently, but with the cooperation of, Santa Barbara County Social Services, which offers her referrals for children needing care.

Angels targets children from birth to age 5, particularly in an effort to help with infant attachment and bonding in the first 24 months of life. That early attachment is critical as a child develops, said Ms. Arntz, a registered nurse who specializes in high-risk pregnancy.

According to Angels, there are currently about 900 foster children in Santa Barbara County, with 200 of them aged newborn to two-years-old. Santa Barbara County has an estimated 120 foster families; while Angles has 22 families on board.

Thus far, the foster care agency has placed about 18 babies in its 14 months of existence.

"Our goal was 10 in the first year," Ms. Arntz recalled. "We're driven by what is needed."

The county's foster program has its own set of rules, and Angels created specific and stringent guidelines for families wishing to take on the role under its representation. Families are permitted to foster only one child, or sibling group, at a time. The county allows up to six foster children in one home. Angels also requires at least one stay-at-home parent, and families must agree to a one-year commitment. Some babies are adopted into new families, while others are reunited with family members.

Prospective foster parents are screened and trained, and must complete an in-depth personality test and an eight-week training program. Families also receive regular visits from social workers.

The program is modeled after a similar agency in San Diego County, and came after Ms. Arntz spent time as a volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocates program locally. CASA volunteers serve as advocates for children in the child welfare and court systems and Ms. Arntz became distressed at the foster care system. In 2005, Santa Barbara County sent 200 children out of the county for care because there weren't enough foster homes, she said.
Such distances can be extreme hardships for families making court dates or wanting to have visitation, she said.

"There are a couple private agencies (in Santa Barbara County), but we are the only one focusing on first-time foster care and stabilizing the children," said Ms. Arntz, the mother of five.

Since the beginning of the year, the agency has had to turn away 43 children referred from Social Services, because of the lack of foster parents. That's in part why they're branching into the North County, and also hiring a North County social worker.

"There's such a need," Ms. Arntz explained. "I have three children right now (needing placement)."

One recently placed newborn lives temporarily in Buellton, cared for in a spacious and comfy home already filled with the young biological children of the care-givers. The family and child cannot be named because of confidentiality concerns, and to protect the little boy.

The foster mother found out about Angels from another friend.

"I never realized the need was there," she said. "We've been blessed. We have our children. We're not doing this to adopt. We decided to help a baby or help a family."

Though clearly getting used once again to middle-of-the-night awakenings, the foster mom deemed the process "incredible."

Her children, she said, love the little boy.

"We talked a lot about it as a family," she explained. "We told them the baby wouldn't stay with us."

The youngest child in the family caught on quick --she says the family is "babysitting" the boy, a plump, happy infant.

The family had not much time to prepare. Once they were certified, Ms. Arntz called them with a day's notice about the baby.

The foster mother has had some explaining to do to close friends and family members, with some questioning whether her own children, as well as she and her husband, will get attached to the baby boy, and he to them.

"If he does get attached, great, I'm doing my job," she said. "If not me, who else? There are babies going into shelters (because of lack of foster homes). It's a sacrifice you have to make (to become a foster parent). We keep that in our minds. He deserves that."

Families in the program, Ms. Arntz said, are truly in flux. They can't make long-term commitments during the year of care, because there may be court dates or other duties.

"The families really make it about the babies and not themselves," Ms. Arntz said. "That's hard, figuring how to make the best possible situation for this baby, who needs to learn to bond and attach. For parents to step up and put their hearts on the line, it can be heartbreaking."

The Buellton mother says so many of the foster care problems would be solved if "everyone could just do it once. We feel like we're doing our part. Our community needs to step up."

Families signed on with Angels are not paid by the agency, but do receive a small monthly state stipend of just more than $400 to provide for the child.

"We'd like to have 20 homes in 2008," Ms. Arntz said of potential foster families. "My goal would be families waiting for babies, rather than babies in shelters."

The agency is also in the process of hiring its second social worker, because of the amount of work available.

"Foster Care is such a huge problem in our county," Ms. Arntz said. "People understand it is an issue we need to take care of. We need to step up and take care of it. I hasn't taken long for people to catch onto the vision.
People get it."

For more information about Angles Foster Care of Santa Barbara, contact
898-0901 or go online at Angels is aided by a board of directors that includes Dr. Jeffrey Lipshitz, a perinatologist; attorney Hugh Spackman; Dr. Karen Brill; Dr. Charish Barry, a pediatrician; Carol Brown, director of the Dream Foundation and Linda Elton, secretary/treasurer.

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