Real Life Angels

Central Coast Magazine | December 1, 2007
by Anne Vidor & Jamie Relth

There may be no more heartrending issue than that of children adrift in our foster care system. Taxed by under-funding and overcrowding, the fine people who try to care for kids that have been abandoned or removed from their primary homes fight a mostly losing battle every day, but they fight nonetheless. And while all children are helpless in this situation, there are none more so than the youngest of them.

Meichelle Arntz, a former High-Risk Pregnancy Nurse and mother of five, decided to help by becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer. Her charges were two young brothers under the age of four, and her role was to work on their behalf to make sure the children’s needs were met through negotiating with the courts and foster care system. To her dismay, the boys were moved between shelter care and various foster homes six times in 12 months.

“This was devastating for them. It slowed permanency planning from the legal aspect and both of them have suffered greatly due to this instability,” she says.
Arntz admits that she hadn’t even been aware there was a severe crisis in foster care, but this eye-opening experience became a calling she couldn’t ignore. “When I found out what was going on, I just wanted to help. It started as simply as that.”

Her research led her to a Southern California program that became her model. Angels Foster Care of San Diego, founded by Cathy Richman, is dedicated to placing infants and toddlers into carefully selected households rather than typical foster homes. Richman helped guide Arntz in the creation of the program in Santa Barbara County.

What makes this approach so different is that children are placed in a single stable home through the entire duration of their time as a foster child—concluded either by the child returning to the birth family or when parental rights have been terminated and they are available for adoption. Equally powerful is that there is one child placed in each household, with an exception made for siblings. A typical county foster situation may have up to six foster children at any given time along with, in some cases, the foster parents’ own kids.
Focusing on infants and children under the age of two (they will go up to the age of four for siblings), Angels works with hospitals, children’s shelters, and county agencies, which refer the children. Twenty-five percent of those who enter the foster care system do so before their first birthday; newborns make up the largest percentage of this group. This can result in serious bonding issues that create long-term problems.

“Young children have a window to attach securely to care givers and if that window is missed (0 – 24 months) it is extremely difficult to make up for this. Attachment disorders may result,” says Arntz. “Eighty percent of prison inmates were in the foster care system at some time in their lives.”

Angels foster parents are thoroughly screened and are selected for their desire to change the life of a child and their ability to do so. There must be one stay-at-home parent, and they have to be financially able to welcome a child into their home. Though the job isn’t easy, there is plenty of training and support for Angels parents. Any child in foster care has been through a traumatic event; some come through it with health and emotional issues as a result while some have been more seriously affected by the events in their young lives.

“One Angels family rescued a severely drug exposed infant. They began their work by visiting and bonding with this little newborn in the intensive care unit. He was having withdrawals from the prenatal drug exposure, was stiff and shaking, and made no eye contact. I saw him with his Angels family two weeks later and he was relaxed, able to be soothed, was gaining weight, and eating and sleeping well,” She recalls. “He is now well bonded in his Angels family and hitting all of his developmental milestones on time.”
Arntz founded Angels Foster Care of Santa Barbara with her own seed money, and works full-time without salary. This 501(c)3 is supported entirely through private donations. According to Arntz, there are approximately 200 toddlers and babies in need of care in Santa Barbara County. There is still plenty to do, but this angel is making a real, lasting difference in the lives of young children every day.

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