Rolando Gomez saw a need.
As the county’s Hispanic and Latino population has grown, the number of foster families who speak Spanish hasn’t kept up.
So Gomez, a case worker for the county, and a team from the county’s Department of Social Services have been on a mission to recruit more Spanish-speaking families who can welcome foster children into their homes. They’ve set up tables at Tops and gone to local churches in an effort to spread the word that more Hispanic and Latino foster families are needed.
It’s not just about language. Sometimes it’s as simple as a meal of rice and beans.
“Completely taking the child out of their home is a traumatic experience for them. Everything is new. They’re not in the same bed. They may not be in the same neighborhood,” said Roberta Farkas-Huezo, administrative director of children’s services for the Department of Social Services. “If they go to church, they hear the same songs and the same hymns in the same language, or if they can have that familiar meal, at least that’s something that connects them to their roots.”
Across Erie County, the number of Hispanic and Latino families has grown by more than a third in the last decade. While still less than 5 percent of the county’s overall population, the number of people who identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino grew to 41,731 during the last U.S. Census compared to 31,054 a decade earlier.
As those numbers have grown, so have the number of foster children who come from homes that speak Spanish. But the number of foster families who speak Spanish hasn’t grown at the same pace.
Between 10 to 15 percent of the children in the county’s foster care system are of Hispanic origin. But only about 5 percent of the families prepared to take in foster children are from the same communities or speak Spanish, Social Services administrators said.
“We really want a better selection of families who have a cultural match so that when we get children who are Spanish speaking or bilingual, we can match them up with families that have those abilities as well – families that observe the same holidays, that cook the same kinds of food, that observe the same kinds of traditions,” said Patricia I. Dietrich, administrative director of adoption and homefinding for the Department of Social Services.
Finding the right match for a child on the first try – even in a foster situation meant to be temporary – is important because there’s a chance that it could become a permanent home.
“If that child cannot go home to a family member, either a parent or another family member, then we’ve already made that good match up front,” Dietrich said. “We don’t have to do the horror stories that we hear about where kids bounce from place to place.”
In the best foster situations, Dietrich said, foster parents serve as a vital link to the biological family.
“If you are of the same culture and speak the same language, of course you’re going to do a better job of being that link and that asset to the biological family in the unification process,” Dietrich said.
It was Gomez, the case worker, who first brought up the need for more Spanish-speaking foster parents during a staff meeting last summer. Since then, he and other Social Services employees have held outreach efforts at Tops Market on Niagara Street and at the Salvation Army on Grant Street. Another event is in the works at Hispanics United in Buffalo.
Those working with Erie County to spread the word hope to get the message out beyond areas of Buffalo, particularly the West Side, that have been home to immigrants from Puerto Rico and other Hispanic communities.
“This is a large community, and it’s not just in the West Side,” said Eugenio Russi, a board member for Hispanics United. “The community is spread out all over Buffalo and Erie County.”
The hope for Erie County workers, Dietrich said, is to get enough interest from people who speak Spanish to run a 10-week course for prospective foster parents in Spanish. The class is already regularly held to help prepare people for foster parenting, but has not been held in Spanish in recent years.
“We really try our best to prepare people for what they might encounter,” Dietrich said. “The idea being that we want to know that when you get to the end, you’re really committed.”