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By Olivia Boler
Noe Valley -- often called Stroller Valley -- is home to lots of new parents. With the recent arrival on 24th Street of a city-sponsored adoption agency, expect to see even more dads and moms in the neighborhood.
In May, a non-profit organization called Family Builders opened a branch in a rear office space at 3953 24th Street. Here in a modest sunny space, Family Builders is helping San Francisco's foster children find permanent adoptive homes and mentors to help them navigate the wider world.
An Oakland-based adoption agency with over 30 years in the field, Family Builders expanded to Noe Valley to perform a project in partnership with the City and County of San Francisco. Called Adoption SF, the project matches families (and individuals) with the hundreds of kids in San Francisco's foster-care system who are currently looking for homes.
The children who are placed with families rarely see the inside of the 24th Street office, but a number of important things go on there, specifically the recruitment, counseling, and training of the adults who will foster or adopt them. Adoption SF also focuses on recruiting families to care for foster children with disabilities or special needs.
Another program the office heads is the Youth Permanency Program, which places older foster children, ages 9 to 18, with a person or family, even if they aren't adopted or fostered by them.
"When the children 'age out' of the system, it's important that they have a permanent connection of some kind, whether it's through a legal guardian, adoption, family, or some sort of network of people who are important in their lives," explains Laurie Sands, the project coordinator for the Noe Valley office. "The statistics for children who don't have that are really bad. These kids often wind up in jail, on the streets, or homeless."
In fact, according to Jill Jacobs, the executive director of Family Builders who works at the Oakland office, 65 percent of foster children wind up homeless within six months of aging out. "Through the Youth Permanency Program," Sands says, "they can have the help they need to go to college or just deal with survival issues."
Outreach to LGBT Families
Jacobs says there are over 76,000 children in California's foster-care system, some 1,700 in San Francisco alone. "They are all ages, zero to 17, and 70 percent are of color, mostly Latino or African-American. Many are older." Many have been shifted from one group facility to another and are seeking some stability in their lives.
Family Builders looks for prospective adoptive families from all walks of life, including single parents, unmarried couples, and people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. In fact, Family Builders has what Jacobs calls a "very elaborate campaign to reach out to potential LGBT families. We have had advertisements on BART, Muni, and billboards on Market and Sanchez streets. I don't think anyone in the country has done that before," says Jacobs.
"Transracial" adoptions, meaning families of one racial background adopting a child or children of another, are also acceptable. What really matters, according to Sands, is that the children will be able to stay, live, and grow in or near the communities from which they come. "They might have siblings in the community or other relatives. It's important that the adoptive family demonstrate a stability, that they're going to stick around San Francisco or the Bay Area."
The Noe Valley office, which has a staff of 10 to 12, depending on the day of the week, hopes to do 40 to 50 adoptions per year, Jacobs says.
Fostering Comes Before Adopting
What Sands calls the "front end of the adoption process" is a long, thorough one, as it determines whether potential families are a good fit. It starts with an orientation, held on the second Tuesday of each month in the downstairs conference room of the Noe Valley office (or the first Saturday in Oakland). The orientation is followed by a preliminary application and a visit by social workers to the applicant's home. Next, applicants must apply for both fostering and adopting, since the family will be the child's foster family before the adoption goes through. They also are fingerprinted and checked for criminal records.
Applicants then undergo training, to help prepare them for different steps in the process as well as for issues that might arise.
"Each step of the way, we ask them, 'Is this what you want? Do you think you can deal with this?'" says Sands. "A successful adoption usually comes from families who are flexible in their expectations and well prepared."
If the applicants indeed indicate they are still interested in a foster-child adoption and the social worker thinks them appropriate, the family is sent another packet of information.
"We check out things like their home insurance, and they're assigned a case worker who will spend a minimum of eight hours with them going over a number of issues," says Sands. These issues include their own childhood experiences, their own relationships, jobs, educational experience, experience with other children, how they deal with issues of substance abuse, their understanding of child development, what sort of local support system they have, and--if they already have children--the way they interact with them. All of this helps Family Builders get to know the families, she says.
After the application has been approved by the county, families have 90 days to find a match with a child in the San Francisco foster-care system. If they don't within that time period, the search widens to all of California. The entire process from start to finish can take five to nine months.
For families thinking about adopting but wary of costs, if they choose to adopt through Family Builders, there are no fees charged. "That would be a barrier to finding families," says Jacobs, who also notes the biggest challenge for the organization is recruiting people to adopt or foster children. Funding for the various programs, including family trainings and home visits, comes from Family Builders' contract with the city, donations, and community and corporate support.
"We Can Handle It"
"Every child in the foster-care system is considered special needs," says Sands. "And that can run the gamut from abuse, exposure to drugs and alcohol in utero, or being neglected."
"I don't like the term 'special needs,'" says Ray McKenzie, a Noe Street resident, who, with his partner Matt Homier, adopted Bobby, age 2, when the boy was four months old. "I remember looking at the list of what was considered special needs and crossing things out, saying, 'I can deal with this, and this, and this. This is special needs? No, it's not!"
McKenzie says Bobby, a sweet-natured little guy who likes rubber duckies and drawing pictures, was "chemically exposed" and given up to foster care the day he was born. If there have been any ill effects, they have yet to surface, says Dad.
McKenzie says it took eight months to find the match with Bobby, and that the whole process seems more daunting than it is. "I really appreciated it and found it enriching actually, because [Matt and I] had to look at ourselves and what we thought we believed, and what we thought we feared. And you realize that what you think of as your biggest fear really isn't that scary. We can handle it!"
It helps, McKenzie adds, that he's found a support system through Family Builders. He's attended trainings and seminars at the Lunny Building, joined a parents group, and even hopes to mentor newer families going through the adoption process. "I've made friends through Family Builders," he says. "They're in it for the long haul."
And by the way, November is Adoption Awareness Month, so if you've been considering adoption, now may be the time to get more information. Call 970-9601, e-mail adoptionsf@familybuilders .org, or visit www.adoptionsf.org.