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Finding Well-Matched Homes For Foster Children Can Be Tough, Even Tougher If They're Latino

Kassidy Arena
Anthony and Jessica Schwindt pose for a photo in their Des Moines home. Anthony's adoption was finalized when he was 18 months old. His sister was adopted a little after she turned 2.

In Iowa, it’s always difficult to find enough foster homes to take in children who need them. And it’s even tougher to place Latino and Spanish-speaking children in well-matched homes. There are currently more Latino children in foster care than there are Latino foster parents. And when they don’t get placed in well-matched homes, they can lose touch with their culture.

Emily Easton said when it comes to finding foster homes for kids who need them: “There’s always a list of children who need foster care right now.”

A woman off-camera quickly interpreted: Siempre hay una lista de niños.

The two women were giving a virtual orientation to about a dozen prospective foster parents. There has always been translation/interpretation information and resources, but this was the first time this statewide, open and virtual approach to the orientation was done in Spanish as well as English.

Easton works as the recruitment coordinator for Four Oaks Family Connections. It operates the foster system, in partnership with the Iowa Department of Human Services, for 69 of the state’s 99 counties. The others are under Lutheran Services in Iowa.

“The goal of foster care is reunification whenever possible with that birth family. And so we're working towards maintaining those connections," Easton said.

Easton said the state is really in need right now of families who identify as Latino or who are willing learn more about the Latino culture. That way, kids who need foster homes won’t be cut off from their own ethnic background.

"Because they're important, and we know they're a part of those kids. And, and we don't want to send the message that those parts aren't valuable," Easton explained.

As of 2019, Four Oaks Family Connections listed 1,729 children were referred to foster care in its service area. Only 1,305 families held foster licenses. Seventy-two children identified as Hispanic or Latino and only 12 licensed foster families identified as Hispanic or Latino.

The off-camera woman who translated Easton’s presentation is a foster parent herself. Her name is Anna Campos. She is Mexican-American and her husband is originally from El Salvador. They have two biological children and got their foster license in 2019. Campos said there’s a special place in her heart for Latino children in the foster system, especially if they don’t speak English or are refugees.

“I've seen that in the past where the Hispanic kids have lost their culture due to being in a foster family that does not speak their language," Campos said.

Four Oaks Family Connections
Four Oaks Family Connections operates in 69 of the state's 99 counties. It works closely with the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association.

In order to avoid the feeling of losing their culture, foster services seek to place children in well-matched homes where they can feel supported culturally, ethnically and linguistically. Easton specified that doesn't mean Latino children should only be placed with Latino families, but rather with any family who is capable of supporting them and being aware of their needs.

"We're not just trying to throw together kids and families, right? We want kids and families that are going to mesh and thrive," Easton said. "It's not just matching up the numbers."

According to the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, "strong cultural identity contributes to mental health resilience, higher levels of social well-being, and improved coping skills, among other benefits. Foster youth face and deal with trauma, changing home environments, and lower levels of social well-being than the general population. Often, due to this disruption, former foster youth have lower cultural identity strength than those who did not experience foster care."

And that's what Campos helps with. She acts as a “foster ambassador” to help other Spanish-speaking and Latino families learn more about the system. Part of that effort is for the first time, translating the virtual orientation on a statewide level.

Prospective foster parents are expected to take an orientation and ten weeks of "pre-service" classes. Campos interpreted some presentations for her husband, who mainly speaks Spanish, but she said sometimes it got difficult. That's why they arranged for an interpreter for the classes. It is not required that foster parents speak English.

Kassidy Arena
The first statewide, bilingual, open and virtual orientation presentation took place Feb. 18, 2021. Emily Easton ran the presentation in English on camera and Anna Campos translated off camera.

But Campos said she is still working on ensuring foster care isn’t taboo among some of Iowa’s Latinos.

"So it's more like keep it quiet. You know, if so-and-so's having issues, the parents or the other family members are supposed to help out. And it's hidden,' Campos explained.

She said people have asked her why she needs to raise other children if she already has her own.

“It's extremely hard to talk to a Hispanic family on becoming foster parents. I still haven't broken that ice. I still haven't broken that barrier," Campos admitted. "I honestly still have to learn a little bit more to kind of help them, you know, break through."

She is working on putting together a Facebook support group for Latino and Spanish-speaking foster parents.

Recruitment coordinator Easton said Campos’ work helps mitigate some of that suspicion now that she’s actively working on breaking down the stigma in the Latino community.

"Partnerships with people like Anna, opportunities like this are really, really valuable to us, because we really want to get the word out, that there are children that would really, really benefit from families that were racially, culturally similar to them," Easton said.

And, Campos added they are even looking for potential foster parents who don’t have a Latino or Spanish background, but who can still help Latino children in their community.

Photo courtesy Jessica Schwindt
(From left to right) Mary Ann, Jack, Jessica and Anthony Schwindt pose for a family photo. Jessica teases she is the only one in her family who is not adopted. "Even the dog is adopted," Jessica said with a laugh.

People like Jessica Schwindt of Des Moines. She’s white and she doesn’t have any sort of Hispanic background, and neither does her husband. But their adopted son Anthony does. And as he grew up, she has put effort into learning about his birth culture and making sure he does too. The social worker and her husband adopted Anthony and his biological cousin.

“I'm not an expert. And so just allowing them the opportunity to be surrounded by other people who have similar experiences who can who can teach them more about their culture," Schwindt said.

The Schwindts raised Anthony and his sister in an "open" way. The kids knew they were adopted since they were very young. Anthony said he always felt comfortable asking Schwindt about his birth family.

Jessica Schwindt
Anthony and his sister Mary Ann, age 2, play on the slide of a playground. Mary Ann is a little older and is currently a journalism student at Grinnell College.

Things like: did he have biological siblings? Yes.
Do they know his birth father? No.

The questions got a little more complicated as he aged, but Schwindt said she and her husband made conscious decisions to expose Anthony to as much about his life as possible. They enrolled their children in an
International Baccalaureate school, which Schwindt described as having a more "global approach to teaching."

"We knew that they would be in an environment where they would be exposed to more diversity, and they would be exposed to languages, they would be exposed to other cultures, and that there would be opportunities for them," Schwindt said.

Even though he was adopted out of the foster system very young, Anthony said having the opportunity to learn about and embrace his birth heritage was empowering. He actually found out about his ethnicity after a DNA test, but he said he sort of had a feeling all along. He felt like he caught on to the Spanish language quicker than other students and he always felt like he didn't quite fit in with other white kids at his school.

I felt like there was something missing.
Anthony Schwindt

“It was very fulfilling, obviously filling in those blanks, because I felt like I had kind of put more of the puzzle together in a sense that I had a clearer image of what had happened," Anthony said. "Because for a while, I kind of was like, well, it makes sense with the information I had, but I felt like there was something missing."

When he was younger, Anthony went to preschool and asked other kids about their first and second mommies. After the school notified Schwindt, she talked with Anthony to let him know not all kids had two moms like he did. Anthony laughed at the story and said even though his “second mom” isn’t Latina, knowing where he came from and having Schwindt help him learn has brought clarity to his life.

“I've really embraced that, because I want to kind of help empower other people that are from my background," the high school senior said.

A student on his cross country team was adopted as well. And when the two talked about it, Anthony talked about his own history. He reminded the other student that his adoptive parents "chose" him. Anthony said he wouldn't have felt as comfortable talking about his own personal story if Schwindt hadn't have been so encouraging and supportive.

Anthony said someday in the future, far after graduating from Grinnell College with a degree in computer science, it would be nice to be a foster parent, and help someone like himself.

For more information about foster care, adoption or how to support it in your area, go to the Iowa Department of Human Services or Four Oaks Family Connections website.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines