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'The hardest part of foster care was the loneliness'

Johnny Madrid made the foster care rounds after his mother died in a car accident. He entered the system at 13 and by the time he left it, he'd been bounced to 19 homes, 14 of which were foster homes. Today at 22, he's poised to graduate from Stanford. He's proud of his achievements but admits he's missing something essential, a family member who will be there when he needs a comforting word. He hears his roommates talk to relatives on the phone and watches them leave for holidays.

It's been hard to watch all that closeness around him. “The hardest part of foster care was the loneliness,” Madrid told child welfare leaders attending a three-day national conference here. Hosted by the California Permanency for Youth Project, the meeting was set up to educate social workers and the public about the overlooked generation of foster youths in the 11- to 18-year-old age group.

Not all foster children are as successful as Madrid, and experts say connections with adults are a crucial requirement. The conference is providing overviews of nine model programs grappling with the issue and strategies to create permanent relationships with adults. The project organizers want to change the public perception that older youths are unadoptable.

Contra Costa County has some 2,000 youths in the foster system, with 150 leaving each year as they reach 18. Alameda County has 4,200, with 300 to 400 aging out yearly. About 4,000 foster youths age out of the system yearly in California. The youth project is working with agencies in Alameda, San Mateo, Monterey and Stanislaus counties to incorporate recommended practices in their programs for permanent placement.

One task is finding out how many are leaving with permanent connections, said Fredei Juni, an analyst for Alameda County adoptions.

Successful programs use strategies such as hiring well-trained staffers and concentrating on youths instead of paperwork. One program, Youth Offering Unique Tangible Help, involves current or former foster care youths who train child welfare workers. The program reached more than 400 such workers last year.

Reina Sanchez of Berkeley has been active in California Youth Connection, a 450-member advocacy group of former or current foster care youths. She wrote a paper on establishing permanent foster relationships. She said the system fails to regard youths as individuals who come from different backgrounds with different needs, and overburdens social workers with paperwork. The UC Berkeley student said whenever she speaks at functions, some well-intentioned social workers tell her they were impressed that she has accomplished so much despite her past. She appreciates the kind words, but says there are a lot of youths in the system like her.

The keynote speaker, author Regina Louise, told the harrowing story of her foster care experience. She so yearned for an adult connection that she searched 25 years before finding a counselor who had tried to adopt her, Jeanne Taylor of Walnut Creek. Racial attitudes of the '70s had prevented the Caucasian adult from adopting a black child. Louise recalls a biological mother who was drunk most of the time and a foster mother who beat her. She and her sister were told that they were “nobody's children.” Everyone needs to have a family figure in their lives, she said.

“We all need to feel like we're tethered to someone.”

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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