Lack of Asian-American foster parents leads to new outreach

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Seeking to make life less traumatic for foster children that are of Asian descent, Los Angeles County is stepping up recruitment of Asian-American foster parents, with help from service groups that serve Chinese, Korean and Khmer-speaking communities.

Officials said hundreds of children of Asian descent, many of them from immigrant families, are in the county's foster care system, but only a few dozen foster families are available who can speak their native language.

And while speaking the same language is critical to making a child feel at home, it's not the only thing, said Wenli Jen, program director at the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead.

“When you see someone who looks like you, there’s a more reassured sense of belonging,” Jen said.

Asian children in the foster system number between 600 to 800 any given month. It is a small fraction compared to the 35,000 children in the system overall. But there is a disproportionate lack of culturally-sensitive households for Asian children, compared to those for children of other ethnicities, said Aris Banico, assistant regional administrator for the county's Department of Children and Family.

“Needless to say, we have had to make it work the best we can,” Banico said.

One 3-year-old Korean boy had been shuffled to three non-Asian households, when at the last one, his foster parent tried giving him rice wrapped in seaweed, said Estelle Song of Korean American Family Services.

"He ate that for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 30 days, because he really missed that," Song said.

The challenge facing the county is raising awareness about the foster care system, and that there are Asian-American and Pacific Islander children needing homes pending reunification with their biological parents.

"There is a notion that the (Asian-American Pacific Islander) population is self-sufficient and doesn't need public services," said Karen Lim, of Special Service for Groups-Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Centers, a community mental health center coordinating the outreach.

The outreach campaign will start out focused on the Chinese and Cambodian communities, which among LA's Asian populations have the largest numbers of children in foster care. Public service announcements will be broadcast on Asian-language stations. Informational sessions courting Asian-American foster parents will start this month. The first one will be given in Chinese at the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead on Dec. 19. 

The program is modeled after a 2014 initiative aimed at recruiting parents from the Korean-American community.

Connie Chung Joe of Korean American Family Services, which launched the program, said she was initially nervous about generating interest, in part because Asian cultures place a heavy emphasis on bloodlines. But to date, 21 Korean-American families have signed up to be foster parents.

“You’re not necessarily talking about adopting a child,” Joe said. “You’re talking about bringing a child into your household where you can give love and support until they’re reunited with their family.”

This year’s campaign’s has a small annual budget — about $34,000 — that has coordinators relying heavily on social media and holding up examples such as Edie Ames, a Mandarin-speaking foster parent from Monterey Park.

Ames, an interpreter, had to overcome disapproval by her parents, who questioned why she was taking care of children who weren't her own. But Ames has fostered seven children since 2013, and is in the midst of adopting one of them. Her parents have had a change of heart.

"My mom loves him," Ames said. "He's really dear to our hearts."

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