The 10-year-old boy made Grace Kwon a little nervous when they first met.
He came from a troubled home and it showed in him, she noted. As a new foster parent, Kwon wasn’t sure if she was ready to care for an older child.
But they shared a cultural link rare within Los Angeles County’s massive foster care system: they are both of Korean descent. Kwon could speak to the child in the language he grew up hearing. She could cook the foods he liked.
“People really are surprised how he has changed, how amazing he has become,” said Kwon, 44, of Los Angeles.
The cultural link Kwon and the boy shared strengthened over time to form a deeper connection. Four years after they first met, Kwon is now the child’s legal guardian. Los Angeles County officials and founders of the Asian Foster Family Initiative (AFFI) hope to increase the frequency with which such connections are made.
Created in 2014 and later licensed as a foster family agency, AFFI was born out of the Korean American Family Services, a 35-year-old, foundation-supported organization that offers families counseling, education and other programs. At the time AFFI was formed, about 800 Korean children were in Los Angeles County’s foster care system, and there were next to no Korean families that could provide homes for them.
The goal behind AFFI is to raise awareness of the need for more Asian families from all cultural backgrounds to become licensed foster care providers. Since 2016, AFFI has recruited foster parents to its own agency, but the organization also provides recruitment, training and support services for Asian caregivers in the county’s network of foster families through a contract with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
The initiative has gained momentum, interest and support since then. But as the effort starts to expand into other parts of Southern California, some challenges remain. Even in a region as diverse as Los Angeles County, many people don’t know that children from Asian cultures are in foster care, said Alice Lee, program manager for AFFI.
“For us, just making the community aware of the shortage of Asian foster families has been a challenge in itself since we live in a world with very fragmented media for one thing,” Lee said.
The number of youth of Asian descent on DCFS rolls is small – about 600 out of the approximately 34,000 children receiving services through DCFS, according to the most recent figures provided by county officials. About half of the youth served by DCFS are living in foster care.
Even though the children from Asian backgrounds represent a small percentage of children placed or awaiting foster care placement, there are very few families that can offer culturally compatible homes, Lee said. For example, of those 600 children, more than 120 have listed a primary language other than English. Most speak Mandarin, followed by Tagalog, Korean, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Cambodian.
The idea of foster parenting is unfamiliar in some Asian countries, Lee added. In Korea, for example, parentless children live in orphanages or in group homes. First generation Korean-Americans may believe it’s the same way in the United States, Lee said.
A shortage of Asian families means children in the foster care system are placed in whatever homes are available. But finding yourself in a different cultural setting during a turbulent time can be especially difficult for children in foster care.
“It is doubly traumatizing to the child,” Lee said, especially for those children raised in homes where the primary language is another one other than English. “Our goal is to try to make the situation a little bit better.”
Getting the word out about the program has progressed through public service announcements and ongoing presentations inside houses of worship. Interest has grown as well. Families outside of California have contacted AFFI, indicating that the initiative is likely one of very few of its kind both locally and nationwide, Lee said.
Those interested are often young couples unable to have children of their own, or older parents whose children are no longer living at home, Lee said.
The application process can be especially daunting for many caregivers that AFFI works with.
“For the prospective families, the sheer amount of application and paperwork that families have to deal with both pre-approval and post-placement can be quite overwhelming … especially when they’re new foster families and not totally fluent in English,” Lee said.
Prospective foster families must complete a 20-hour training session, she added. Depending on how fast a family completes the entire application packet, the process to become a foster parent or family can typically last from three to six months.
“The training encompasses everything from understanding foster children’s needs and traumatic backgrounds, helping them with loss and grief to learning how to provide a safe home and environment for them physically and emotionally,” Lee said.
She says AFFI also steps in to help provide an extra level of support to these foster families, such as visiting a new foster family more often than required by the county to help with any issues.
So far, five families under AFFI’s foster family agency (FFA) status are foster parents for the county and six more families are close to approval, Lee said. Another 15 families are currently in the homestudy stage, Lee said. During the pre-FFA license phase, AFFI helped to approve 32 families and place 45 children, 12 of whom were adopted.
The initiative has received positive feedback from Los Angeles County officials who say there is an overall shortage of qualified homes for all children.
“I think what they’re doing is a huge service,” said Genie Chough, assistant deputy director for external relations at DFCS. “Culturally appropriate placements are a huge priority for us, but we do not have a long list of Asian providers.”
The shortage of available foster families for all children in care is widespread within Los Angeles County. In 2005, there were more than 8,000 foster homes available. By 2015, there were about 3,800. That number has risen slightly, and now stands at just over 4,000.
“A 50 percent decline leaves us with less choice,” Chough said. “We often don’t have the perfect home for each child. Language can be barrier. Among first-generation immigrants, there’s a broad range of languages and dialects.”
Chough said even among foster homes where Spanish is spoken, for example, there could be cultural differences. A Spanish-speaking child from Guatemala was recently placed in a home where the family was from Argentina because that was the only home available. Those kinds of differences and nuances may seem small on paper, but to a child in a difficult circumstance, comfort with language and food can make a big difference, she added.
With an area of 4,751 square miles, Los Angeles County’s geography also works against connecting Asian children with compatible families.
“Unlike other races and ethnicities, Asians are spread out over a large county,” Chough said. “For Asians, there are pockets here and there. We’re spread out over Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and as far as Torrance.”
Kwon was a single mom and piano teacher with a 6-year-old son before she became a foster parent. Kwon said she tries to speak about the initiative whenever she can. She is involved with support groups as well. She tells families in the Korean community to be unafraid and how she’s come to understand that a parent’s love can transcend race and culture.
“I’m a unique person in this community,” Kwon said. “Some families fear to take other races because they don’t have confidence they can do it. But for me, it doesn’t matter. I’ll take one or two or three or ten. Raising children takes heart-warming work.”
That 10-year-old boy she was first nervous about is now 14, she said. He and her biological son, now 10, play duets together on the piano.
“Together,” Kwon said, “they bring harmony to the home.”