Fostering an easier, more inclusive path for families
By the time he was 4, Titus had already lived in three foster homes. He wanted a permanent family but things never seemed to work out.
Then a social worker suggested that Cleo King and Camille Thornton might be a good fit for the little boy with the big personality. The couple had been making the rounds of LA County adoption fairs, but had never made a match.
“We met Titus on Monday, observed him at school on Tuesday and had a play date on Wednesday,” recalled King, an actress known for her roles in the TV series “Mike & Molly” and the movie “The Hangover.”
By that afternoon, it was a wrap. “It was clear, he’s ours,” said Thornton, a manager on the leadership team at Cedars Sinai.
That weekend—five years ago—Titus moved into their San Fernando Valley home and the adoption process began. “This is your fourth and final stop,” his new parents have promised. “In this family, we will never change our minds about loving you.”
Now, with a series of new initiatives, the county Department of Children and Family Services is hoping to make such happy endings more commonplace.
The ranks of adoptable children are growing, with more than 18,000 children and teens in foster care in Los Angeles County, and 500 ready to be adopted. But the number of foster homes has been declining.
So DCFS is ramping up outreach and streamlining the application process for foster parents.
“They’re the cog that makes the wheel turn,” said Angela Karimyan, from the DCFS recruitment team. “But they haven’t always been treated in ways that reflect how much we value them.”
Two years ago, a UCLA study found widespread frustration among foster parents; many felt unsupported and overwhelmed.
Now, thanks to county efforts and state reforms, the application process is easier and foster parents receive more help and have more autonomy. They’ll no longer need formal permission to hire a babysitter or allow a foster child to attend a sleepover with friends. Approvals that used to take a year can now be completed in three months. And every foster family will have a social worker for individualized support.
“The whole process is more user-friendly,” Karimyan said. “We listened and made changes.”
Those changes are part of a broader county commitment to meeting the needs of vulnerable children and struggling families. The Board of Supervisors has made the welfare of children in the foster care system one of its priorities—creating an Office of Child Protection to explore new ways to make the system more responsive.
A stable network of resource families is a critical first step. To accomplish that, the department has assigned more social workers to recruitment, developed an online application and created a website with profiles of children and information for would-be parents.
On June 3, a resource fair in Inglewood will offer prospective parents a chance to talk with current foster families and complete several steps in the application process.
The county is also working with nonprofits and faith-based groups to enlarge the parent pool by battling negative preconceptions.
When Andrew Coates and Melissa Armitage began to consider fostering a child, the only thing Coates knew about foster care was what he’d seen in movies and on TV—“the old stereotypes about bad kids being moved around a lot.”
Their first orientation opened his eyes: “These aren’t bad kids; they’re innocent kids in bad circumstances that are not their fault,” he said.
The couple applied this year to foster, as a route to adoption. It took only a few months to qualify. Now the nursery is ready and they’re waiting for a call.
The prospect of adoption is a draw for many who become foster parents.
Dana Valenzuela had always wanted to be a mother, but the circumstances were never quite right. Then she fell in love with Jesse Marez, a father of four, and they decided to adopt from foster care.
Two months after they were approved, a social worker called and said, “I think we have the perfect child.”
That perfect child was an infant so tiny he fit in Marez’s cupped hands. Born 10 weeks early, he’d weighed only 3 pounds. The couple met him in the hospital and took him home just after Thanksgiving in 2013.
Three years later, little William officially became their son. But Valenzuela will tell you: “He became my son the second he was put in my arms.”
Other foster parents aren’t looking to adopt; they find satisfaction in providing a stable home for children whose families are in turmoil, but might ultimately reunite.
And some specialize in caring for hard-to-place kids: sibling groups, teenagers and children with special medical or emotional needs.
Foster parents receive monthly stipends to cover the children’s expenses; the rate can range from $880 to $2,300, depending on the needs of the child.
But “the emotional rewards are something you can’t put a price tag on,” said Rich Valenza, who is partnering with the county on a “Reimagine Foster Parents” campaign, featuring lamppost banners and video tributes by foster parents, including celebrities like actress King and her wife Thornton, and actor Jon Cryer and his wife, TV host Lisa Joyner.
Valenza’s own journey as a gay, single foster parent led him to launch RaiseAChild, a nonprofit that walks parents through the process and helps recruit from groups previously overlooked: gays and lesbians, Spanish speakers, single people, young and older adults.
When Valenza applied 11 years ago, he had no idea what he was getting into and no one to talk to. “I didn’t want to hear from my friends how I shouldn’t be doing it; how I’d get these kids that nobody wanted,” he said.
He asked for one child; the county sent him two, a 5-year-old boy and his 4-year-old sister. Their first weeks together weren’t easy. The little boy adjusted, but his sister missed the elderly foster mother who’d cared for them since birth. “It took a while to get my parenting legs under me,” Valenza recalled.
But he learned on the job, and later finalized their bond through adoption. Now they’re teenagers and he treasures both the joys and challenges of parenthood.
“It fills a space in my heart,” he said. “This gave me a chance to build a family and help kids who needed me.”