On an unseasonably cool Saturday morning earlier this month, a warm energy was felt inside the Isla Verde restaurant as about 20 men and women filled the cozy venue in Kensington.
El Concilio, the family care service agency, had invited them to a panel discussion to hear first-hand experiences about the joys and trials of taking care of foster children.
El Concilio is located in just outside Northern Liberties, at 705 N. Franklin St.
Among the panelists was Camelia Bell, a foster mom for the last 26 years, who is known for her work with teenagers. She currently is caring for five foster teens in addition to her two adopted sons.
“People don’t like to take teens in because they think they’re set in their ways or hard to deal with, but every child deserves to be loved,” Bell said.
Concilio holds an educational panel discussion called “Cafecito de Niños” (Café of Children) about once a quarter as a way to recruit foster parents.
Mia Mendez of Hot 107.9 FM moderated the panel discussion. For the first time, a birth parent, Derek Wallace, was asked to tell his story. Wallace is on the road to being reunited with his son. He is working with El Concilio and his son’s mother to secure proper housing.
This is the ideal goal of El Concilio’s work, said deputy director Julie Cousler. The agency strives to reunite families, or secure “loving, positive” homes for children in the meantime.
A good foster parent, in her words, would “set up healthy boundaries and rules, give positive reinforcement and be willing to mentor children’s parents.”
Community-based agencies like El Concilio will become increasingly important to the city’s family care services over the next year as the Department of Human Services undergoes a “big transformation,” Cousler explained.
DHS is in the process of adding umbrella organizations, divided by police districts, to assist in serving the specific needs of communities. El Concilio was chosen to partner with The NorthEast Treatment Centers and expand its reach into the 15th police district, which includes Bridesburg.
The NorthEast Treatment Centers subcontracts with El Concilio to recruit and train foster-care parents. The goal is to keep children in their current neighborhoods and ideally place them with a relative or family of similar cultural identity. Research shows that abrupt school or neighborhood changes often correlates to poor behavior and lower academic performance in school.
As El Concilio’s reach grows, there’s a cultural awareness to the agency’s work that is expected to give the agency an edge in working with the Northeast’s diversifying demographics.
“Como estan ustedes? Welcome to Cafecito de Niños,” Maria Velasquez, El Concilio’s foster-care coordinator, said as she greeted guests who were arriving for the June 8 program.
She made her rounds of the tables that had been set up, answering questions and gauging interest — setting the tone for the bilingual environment.
Founded in 1962, El Concilio (The Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, Inc.) is the oldest Latino organization in Philadelphia and works with a largely Latino and African-American demographic. It strives to incorporate cultural awareness in the placement of children and when helping local families with foster care, adoption, housing counseling or parenting skills training services.
Events like the one held in Kensington will be crucial to building connections and securing foster homes in the new communities El Concilio will be serving this fall, when it expands into Northeast Philadelphia.
A previous event, held in March, was very successful; ending with 20 families applying to be foster-care parents and 12 who completed the required 24 hours of training to become certified.
Last year 4,182 Philadelphia children were placed in dependent care due to abuse or neglect. Although that is a 35 percent decrease from 2011, Latino and African American children still represent an overwhelming number of the city’s children in foster care.
This disparity corresponds with higher rates of poverty in these communities, said Cousler, so programs like “Cafecito de Niños” are necessary to ensure there are enough qualified foster-care parents to keep up with the local needs. She believes there is strong willingness in poorer communities to take in foster children, but a lack of information about the process.
In addition to the teens that Bell talked about, there is a strong need for ‘treatment foster care,’ which includes children with special needs, behavioral problems and medical issues.
As the program came to an end, another success story was shared. Yachira Albino, who has been in foster care throughout her teenage years, just turned 18 and graduated from high school. Albino hopes to attend college next year and will remain in care on a foster-care board extension, which will provide funding to her foster parents until she graduates college; typically the state ends funding to teens in care once they turn 18.
“We want all children [in foster care] to have a future as bright as Yachira’s,” Cousler said. “This is what motivates us to do the work that we do.” ••