El Concilio recruits foster parents, expands into NE

Fam­ily care ser­vice agency hosts pan­el for foster par­ents.

  • Panel’s perspective: El Concilio staff members and current foster parents share their experiences as radio personality Mia Mendez facilitates the discussion.

  • Maria Velasquez, El Concilio’s foster-care coordinator, welcomes guests to the ‘Cafecito de Niños’ program.

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.

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” (Caf&ea­cute; of Chil­dren) about once a quarter as a way to re­cruit foster par­ents. The agency cur­rently serves the di­verse pop­u­la­tions of Frank­ford and east­ern North Phil­adelphia and is gear­ing up to ex­pand in­to the North­east this fall. 

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 May­fair, Frank­ford, Brides­burg and Ta­cony.

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.

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.” ••

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