By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — Rich Valenza realized there was a need to help prospective foster parents after experiencing the red tape of adopting two children of his own.
“I went through the [foster care] process as a single dad because I wanted to build a family 11 years ago,” Valenza said. “I realized that there was a lot of prejudice toward youth in the foster care system. Many people blame the youth for being placed in foster care in the first place. They believe the children are bad, but that is not the case. They are totally innocent.”
There are currently 33,000 foster youth in Los Angeles County, the largest concentration of foster youth in the nation. Black children make up 7.5% of the children in Los Angeles County, according to the Center for Health Journalism, but comprise nearly 25% (8,156) of the kids in the foster care system.
By comparison, white children account for 20.4% of youth in the county, but only 11% of the children in the foster care system.
Nationally, the numbers are also unbalanced. According to Verywell Family, a New York-based advocacy organization for parents and children, Blacks make up 14% of the chidlren population nationwide, but 23% of the children in foster care. Black children also are twice as likely to enter the foster care system as white children and remain in the system about nine months longer.
Valenza founded the nonprofit foster agency Raise a Child Foundation as what he called “a leap of faith.”
“I was waiting week after week for a social worker to place me with a match [for a foster child] through [the county] Children and Family Services Department,” he said. “They finally matched me with a brother and sister who I saw right away were malnourished and skinny.
“At the time, they were 4 and 5 years old. Their foster mother had locked up all the food in the refrigerator. She only allowed the children to eat cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Valenza opened up his heart and gave the two siblings a “forever home,” where they received love and support and grew up to become productive adults.
“My son is currently enrolled in Santa Rosa Community College and my daughter is enrolled at Sarah Lawence College in New York,” he said proudly.
Valenza has a dedicated staff at Raise a Child that is committed to helping foster children find forever homes.
“In 12 years, I and my staff have helped match 3,600 kids with foster parents,” he said.
Statistics indicate that children who grow up without a strong supportive parental network face a myriad of challenges, including homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment and lack of employment.
Valenza said that through his foundation potential foster parents or foster-to-adopt parents will be guided through the foster care process and all of their questions will be answered. After they register with the agency, they will receive a call from the parent advocate team followed by an agency introduction. There is low- to no cost to foster a child and ongoing monthly financial support is also available to foster families.
An array of wraparound services can be utilized to help the foster parent and child, including health and dental insurance coverage as well as mental health services, child care, school meal plans and higher education opportunities.
Potential foster parents who want to view prospective placements can also visit the Heart Gallery LA that is available online. The Heart Gallery LA is a traveling photographic exhibit created to find forever families for children in the Los Angeles County foster care system and features photos and stories of children waiting to be adopted.
“The hope is that the placement of foster youth is a temporary solution until the child can be reunified with the birth parents,” Valenza said.
Raise a Child Foundation also helps LGBT community members and single parents who are seeking to build families.
Paris Cook-Troynel, 19, was adopted at birth.
“I have a great family,” she said. “They gave me hope and they pushed me to go far. I grew up with two fathers and that’s always been normal to me.
“My parents love me for me and they have always accepted me for me,” said Cook-Troynel, who has worked with special needs kids.
“The need for foster parents is strong,” she added. “There are kids in the system who are waiting everyday for a family to love and take care of them, so I would definitely say that potential foster parents should do it.”
Cleo King and Camille Thornton, a same sex couple, wanted to complete their family with a child.
“We’re not your typical family,” Thornton said. “We had some misgivings about how we would be received but we have been received well.
The couple found their adoptive son, Titus, at a meet-and-greet sponsored by Raise a Child.
“The first time we saw Titus, his foster family drove up in their car and parked,” King said. “We were also sitting in a car. And all of a sudden, the front door of their car opens and here comes this little burst of energy, light, love and excitement.
“He’s on the porch and he’s excitedly waving at us. But we found out later he was really waving hard at our caseworker,” King said. “But that was the moment we said, ‘Oh, my God! He is beautiful!”
“We had a playdate with Titus on a Wednesday and he moved in [with us] on a Friday. It all happened in less than a week,” King added.
The couple said that potential foster parents should not be apprehensive about choosing a foster child.
“People are afraid because they don’t know what they’re going to get,” King said. “But even if you carry a baby for nine months, you still don’t know what you’re going to get. So it’s OK. Just love the one that comes.”
“I never thought that I would love another individual the way I love this little boy right here,” Thornton added.
Jesse Marez and Dana Valenzuela instantly fell in love with their adoptive son William.
“We met William at 34 weeks and he wasn’t even due yet,” Valenzuela said. “He was really tiny and just so sweet. He was bundled in this blanket and I saw this little face and it was the face I had been dreaming about.
“I knew that he was ours and that is what I had been waiting for and three years later, we adopted him.
“I wish more people would consider being foster parents because there are so many kids out there that need and deserve your love and your protection, time and patience,” Valenzuela added.
“Just jump in the water. That’s all you need,” Marez said.
Potential foster parents can watch upcoming Raise a Child Southern California Information Sessions on May 18 and May 25 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. through Zoom. Registration is required. For more information, call 877-417-1440.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.