Nearly two years ago, Amanda Smith and her husband got to participate in a uniquely Southern California experience: introducing a little boy to the magic of Disneyland for the first time.
The day became a joyful memory for Smith and her husband, as they watched the 5-year-old discover not only that Mickey Mouse lived there, but that he got to go on as many rides as he wanted.
“He had no idea where we were, and didn’t know that he should be excited,” Smith told Angelus News.
This child was not their own, but one they hosted through the Safe Families program, one of several programs the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has highlighted during Foster Care Awareness Month. The program connects children who are at risk of entering the foster system to families from local churches who can host them, while their parents get their lives back on track.
Through Foster Care Awareness Month, the Catholic Church in Los Angeles has highlighted supporting foster children as a concrete way to live out faith and make a difference in the foster care crisis in Los Angeles. The county has 34,000 children in foster care, more than any other county in the country, and more than most U.S. states.
Kathleen Domingo, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, said the archdiocese realized that “encouraging our Catholic community to become foster parents and support foster kids is one of the most impactful ways we can combat poverty, break the cycle of broken families and build a culture of life.”
The conversation around the Catholic responsibility to help families has gone national. A May 24 forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Review Institute, will examine the role of faith-based organizations in helping end the foster care crisis.
Along with Domingo, the event will feature Angelus contributing editor Kathryn Jean Lopez and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, the next chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life office.
Several Christian churches in LA County had already signed up for Safe Families before St. Andrew Catholic Church in Pasadena in May became the first parish in the archdiocese to host the program. Smith and her husband have been part of Safe Families for two years, after being introduced to it by a friend at their church, Parkcrest Christian Church in Long Beach.
During that time, the Smiths welcomed seven children into their homes. Their placements typically lasted less than three weeks.
“It’s a unique experience,” she said, especially since they started before they had children of their own. Long-term arrangements, like schooling, can be complicated to set up, especially for a child who might not stay long.
But Smith emphasized that participating families are not on their own.
“It definitely has inspired our family and friends to come alongside us,” she said. “They’re very helpful while we’re hosting, with child care, drop-offs to school. It’s a family affair.”
Smith said her church community’s support is important — it can be hard “to have suddenly a bunch more kids.” Most parents go through various stages before they have a 10-year-old on their hands, instead of all at once. “The more support we have, the better,” she said.
The mission of Safe Families, for Smith, reflects a biblical mode of hospitality.
“Jesus always opened his arms to everyone around him. He wasn’t afraid to meet people where they are and serve the real needs they have.”
Rather than hosting a child being an exercise in pity, she said, “it’s meeting real needs that people have in the moment, and living out our faith rather than feeling bad for people.”
With so many children in the foster care system, juvenile dependency courts can have trouble ascertaining where a child is best suited to go: back to their families, to relatives or to another foster family? To speak up for the best interests of a child, ordinary people can volunteer to become court-appointed special advocates (CASAs) to represent the child in court.
“It’s a serious commitment, and very different from most volunteer commitments, in that you have a child’s life in your hands,” Wende Nichols-Julien, executive director of CASA of Los Angeles, told Angelus News.
Nichols-Julien said that for judges who might have a thousand cases, a CASA is the voice in court who knows the child best, and can help the judge come to the most informed decision about whose home a foster child lives in.
Getting to know them
The program requires a two-year commitment and 40 hours of training, along with regular continuing education. CASAs meet regularly with the children they represent, getting to know them as they move through life and toward adulthood, and are provided with “a lot of support” for any issues they might encounter, said Nichols-Julien.
More than 600 volunteers serve as CASAs, and they are often one of the few stable adult figures in a child’s life.
Volunteers with CASA of Los Angeles are not only advocates inside the courtroom, but also outside of it. A special program within CASA connects graduate students interested in social work to foster youths who are transitioning into independent living.
The change from a group home to independent living can be jarring for many foster youths. They can lack strong social bonds with other adults, and are at a higher risk for homelessness, incarceration and sex trafficking.
The poor outcomes for youths aging out of the foster system at 18 years old led California to pass a law allowing youths to stay until they reach their 21st birthday.
Graduate students can help these young men and women with tasks such as finding a place to live, applying for financial aid for college or getting a job.
“The idea is that because they made these decisions recently, they’re closer to them and have the opportunity to establish a peer-to-peer relationship,” said Nichols-Julien.
Every advocate in the foster system will acknowledge that fostering is not for every family. But Nichols-Julien said the opportunities to help a child in other ways, like CASA, have expanded.
As an advocate for foster youths, and a Catholic, she said “our system needs to do a better job at supporting families, and I can’t think of anything that would be more directly related to our faith.”
Forming a family
Parish bulletins aren’t known for starting families. But Barbra Manriquez began her journey in one more than a decade ago. At a time when she and her husband were learning about adoption, she happened to see a notice in the back of the bulletin at their parish, St. Linus Catholic Church in Norwalk, about fostering in Los Angeles.
They eventually became licensed foster parents, and adopted their first daughter, Chyenne, about a year after she was placed with them.
But the Manriquez adoption story did not end there. After they adopted Chyenne, they reached out to her older sister who was in a foster care group home, hoping to form a relationship.
The older sister did not join them. After aging out of foster care, Chyenne’s sister became pregnant, and later had her own baby taken into foster care.
“We were not intending for another child, but we didn’t want her to get lost in the foster system,” Manriquez said. After a year, they adopted the baby, Mikylah.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ celebration of Foster Awareness Month is an important effort to remedy the lack of information available in parishes about this family ministry. Until a recent presentation at St. Linus, Manriquez had heard nothing about fostering in the decade since she adopted her children.
For people who are looking into fostering or adoption, “it’s kind of daunting to not know where to start,” she said. “They don’t know where to go.”
Leaving a family to go to foster care can deeply wound a child’s heart, as can the frequent switches between homes, with possessions stuffed into trash bags for the move. But children who spend years in group homes also become wounded by never having the love of a family. Children can become so institutionalized, Manriquez said, spending their lives in a dorm with “rules and boundaries and curfews,” that they don’t learn “how to give or receive love.”
“If we had more resources available to us, that could be a huge cornerstone in our ministry,” she said. “I hope that more people do this. It’s a great way to start your family.”
Although the Manriquezes were hoping to adopt through fostering, they knew that adoption was not a certain result with their first foster child. But Barbra and her husband knew it was important that “the child would have known what it felt like to be in a family that was all about keeping them in the center of their hearts, feeling loved for whatever period of time.”
“That’s what a foster family’s purpose is for.”
Nicholas Wolfram Smith is an Angelus News contributor based in Oakland.
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