Flights of Angels Among Us
It’s a fairly quiet Tuesday morning at Angels Foster Family Network. Rows of chairs line the main room, remnants of the orientation for new families which was held last night. Outside this room, a calming waterfall provides a lush backdrop to the often stressful work done within these walls. “We see it all,” says Rachel Zahn, Associate Director. “We see the beautiful and the challenging.”
Founded in 1999, Angels has been the go-to “baby experts” for the foster care system in San Diego. Sanctioned by the state, this organization finds foster families for babies from the age of newborn to three years. “This is a critical time, developmentally,” says Rachel, a former pediatrician. “If babies don’t form that connective human bond immediately, they will never learn how to have normal human relationships in the future. You can’t get that time back.”
Understanding this, the staff at Angels thoroughly vets each of their foster families (a psychological profile is required here – not typical fare in the traditional foster system) and tasks them with forming these loving and bonding connections with the children they receive into their care. 50% of the families end up adopting their foster babies. All of them agree that they will be a family to the child until a permanent situation is decided.
Because the circumstances around the need for newborn foster care can be dramatic, Angels’ families also undergo intensive training sessions, which include how to handle special health needs. “For instance,” says Rachel, “they have to understand what it means to take home a baby addicted to heroin.”
Rachel and the staff at Angels are constantly amazed by the families who foster with them. “We ask them to open their hearts to these challenges, for an uncertain amount of time and an uncertain future for the baby.” Uncertain, because the future of the child is often decided by the court system and reunification with the birth parents is always a possibility, no matter how challenging that situation may be.
Angels Foster Family Network was founded by Cathy Richman, who had volunteered as an court-appointed advocate for children in the foster care system. “She was appalled by what she saw,” says Rachel. “She said, ‘We have to do this better.'” Since its inception, Angels has successfully placed 550 babies. The gleeful faces of the adopted provide the main decor in the Angels’ offices.
Rachel has been working at Angels for two years and believes that everything she has studied and experienced in her past careers have led her to this organization. Inspired by Cathy and a neighbor who was an “Angels dad,” the moment she understood the work being done at Angels, she knew she had to be a part of it. And as a retired pediatrician, she knows babies.
“When they first comes to us at Angels, they have usually shut down emotionally,” she explains. “There are no smiles, no eye contact – they look a little sickly. After they are placed with an Angels family, we see them a week later and the difference is amazing. They are giggling, laughing – they are like different babies.”
In addition to Cathy and Rachel, there are five social workers on staff who are on call for their families 24/7. Each social worker only handles up to 15 families, versus the traditional system where social workers have 60-80 cases each.
All in all, it is a system that works. With sister organizations in Santa Barbara and Oklahoma City, Angels is trying to export their model, spreading the 0-3 word as quickly as possible. “We are transforming the face of foster care,” says Rachel.
Families interested fostering children can find information on the Angels’ website, www.angelsfoster.org. Volunteers in other capacities are also welcome, especially as the organization is looking forward to its first fundraising gala, An Evening with Angels, featuring Antwone Fisher. Additionally, they will always accept donations for the “baby starter kits” they provide to new foster families, which include everything from diapers to clothes to toys and formula.
By supporting this marvelous organization in some capacity, maybe we can say the same thing to ourselves that Rachel Zahn does at the end of each day: “What I did today was so important.”