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  January 28, 2002

Social Work Project Helps
Latino Kids Find Foster Families

by Meredith Carlson Daly

Janet Gonzalez grew up in the shadow of drugs and gang violence in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood. Her mother protected her only child, keeping her out of danger four floors up from the volatile streets.

It was a safe haven, until Janet turned 13. Then her life became as dangerous and scary as the streets her mother had taught her to avoid.

When Janet was 13, her mother died after suffering a heart attack. Janet moved six times to four different foster care families before finally living on her own, graduating Hartford High School with honors and heading off to Syracuse University on a scholarship.

Gonzalez, 29, now a graduate student at the School of Social Work, is completing her field study internship with Professor Julio Morales on an innovative project aimed at boosting the number of Latino families involved in foster care and adoptions.

Gonzalez shared her gripping story at a conference organized last semester by Morales for foster care children. She is one of many young people Morales has guided over the last 40 years of his career - a path decorated with awards for improving the lives of others.

A Mission of Helping
Morales chose Gonzalez and three other graduate students to work on a nearly $1 million, three-year federal grant that links academics, the clergy and social workers in a crusade to recruit foster parents in the Greater Hartford region.

The project, dubbed "Queen Esther," from the story of self-sacrifice in the Old Testament, involves churches in Greater Hartford. One graduate student works closely with a church coordinator to help forge a team of Latino families interested in foster care and adoption.

The goal is to recruit a total of 60 families during the next two years. The theory behind the faith-based project is that families are more likely to remain as foster care parents - and will probably adopt their foster children - through the strength and support of the church ministry.

"Churches believe in self-sacrifice and the mission of helping others," Morales says. "Because of this mission, churches become a good pool to recruit families."

Finding the Best Home
State figures show that during the past year, the state has placed an average of 40 to 45 Latino children in foster care homes each month - a total of nearly 500. But in the same year, the state has only licensed 75 new Latino families for foster care and adoption - for a total of about 135 Latino families.

The federal government has shifted its focus from supporting family re-unification and foster care homes to promoting adoptions. Nationally, 60 percent of adoptions are by the foster care parents, Morales says. The grant of $250,000 each year - now in its second year - is an outcome of that shift.

"I am clear that a child is better off in a home and a permanent home than being moved around or in an institution," he says. "What I believe in most is the strength of the family. The first line of defense is to pour resources into biological families - to keep children there.

"But sometimes that isn't possible, like in the case of Janet Gonzalez. Then the next issue is, how do we get the best homes. Leaving your home is traumatic - very traumatic - for children. If you put children in a home where the culture is familiar, where they can hear the same language, eat similar foods," the trauma can be less severe, he says.

Morales, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York with parents who taught him the value of foster care. Although his family lived in poverty, his parents always had foster children. One of his sisters adopted two foster children and Morales, a single father of two, has several grandchildren, including two from his foster son, now in the Armed Services.

"I really think that wherever possible Latino children should be adopted by Latino families," Morales says.

Long-Term Commitment
Although involving the church as a tool to recruit families for foster care is used in several other states - and has been tried in Connecticut - Morales says this is the first project that brings together state social workers, university faculty and students, clergy, and staff of community-based organizations.

Nellie Cartagena, a director who supervises foster care adoptions and grants for the state Department of Children and Families, first approached Latino ministers a year ago. Then she saw an opportunity to apply for a federal grant and asked Morales to take the lead in preparing the grant and working with the community.

"I do have faith in this faith-based process," Cartagena says. "All these issues of abuse, neglect, poverty are very, very relevant to the churches."

Once families in church see that the church ministry program is long term, involving the state, the University, and Catholic Family Services in Hartford, the primary community organization administering the grant, they will get more involved with foster care, she says: "I know the families will come, once they know we are there to stay and this is what God is asking us to do."

Morales and his colleagues place special emphasis on looking for ways to make it easier for families to become foster parents. "A lot of families say they are interested in foster care, but they don't qualify," he says.

The state's criteria for obtaining foster licenses are lengthy. A common obstacle for families involves house repairs that are costly, such as making sure windows have screens, doors have locks, and electrical outlets are working. "We can help address obstacles such as these," Morales says.

He adds that it is important to closely monitor the progress of the project: "We'll see what works and what doesn't work."

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