Page One

Agency Finds a Better Way for Foster Children By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday May 17, 2005

Shamean Trucks spent most of her youth as a foster kid, feeling like an unloved outsider in her own home. But thanks to a placement made three years ago by Berkeley’s only foster care and adoption agency, she is entering adulthood as a member of a tight-knit family. 

“The family I lived with before never should have been licensed to be foster parents,” said Trucks, 19, who now attends Los Medanos College. 

She suffered mental and physical abuse at the home where she lived from the age of 4 until 15, when the county put her in a youth home. By the time she was 16, Trucks said she was counting the days until her eighteenth birthday, when she would finally leave the system. 

“When you’re in foster care it seems there is no way you can really win,” she said. 

But Alameda County officials turned to Berkeley’s A Better Way to find her a suitable home. The family it selected, a multi-racial foster care version of the Brady Bunch in Antioch, Calif. with an African American mother, a white father and eleven biological and adopted children of all ethnic stripes, turned to be a perfect fit for Trucks, who is half white and half Asian. 

“It felt like a family,” Trucks said. “I was still different, but in a way that fit.” 

Founded in 1996, A Better Way has made its mission to serve children the foster care system has failed. Executive Director Shahnaz Mazandarani said she formed the agency after frustrations working with another foster care group. 

“Most of the attention and money was going for administration, not children,” she said. “I decided to form an organization whose first priority would be children.” 

A Better Way seeks to make their children’s lives as normal as possible. The agency assigns one social worker to be responsible to perform roles traditionally filled by different counselors. “I want to eliminate all these strangers in the lives of children,” Mazandarani said. 

Once foster parents are found, a social worker from A Better Way meets weekly with each family and foster child.  

“They followed through a lot better,” Trucks said of the agency. “With the county I felt like my social workers were strangers. They showed up about once a month. There wasn’t anyone at A Better Way that I didn’t build a relationship with.” 

Like the roughly 15 other independent foster care agencies in Alameda County, A Better Way gets its foster children from county referrals. Most of the children it places, Mazandarani said, typically have suffered serious emotional trauma and are more difficult for the county to place. 

The agency works with 80 parents who provide room for up to 120 foster children at one time. A Better Way currently has fewer available spaces for foster children than in previous years, partly because many of its families have chosen to legally adopt the foster child they cared for, Mazandarani said. Since the agency received a license to handle adoptions, it has overseen the adoption of 50 children by their foster parents. 

Only 20 percent of foster children in A Better Way are re-united with their biological parents, Mazandarani said. When she began the organization such a low percentage would have bothered her, but now, after finding that many biological parents didn’t take an interest in their children, she encourages the foster parents she works with to pursue adoption. 

Parents interested in fostering children must undergo a rigorous screening and training process, Mazandarani said. About 40 percent of parents who enter the program don’t become foster parents with the agency. 

“We show no mercy when it comes to screening parents,” she said. “We don’t tell them that foster parenting is fun and you’re going to have a lot of a lot of good times with the children.” 

For Annie Kassof, a Berkeley foster parent, the biggest struggles have been parting with a child she became close to and dealing with a child with severe emotional trauma. She recalled one foster child, who had a history of sexual abuse, who once broke a chair against the wall in her home. 

Even when the placement goes well, as in Trucks’ case, complications inevitably arise. Trucks said that she and one of her foster parents’ daughters, who is three years younger than she is, have had difficulties building a relationship. 

“We’re still working on it,” Trucks said. “It’s easy to be jealous of each other.” 

A Better Way is the only agency in the county that provides trained therapists to all of its children to help them deal with past trauma and interact with their foster family. 

“All of these children are emotionally disturbed,” Mazandarani said. “We have to help then deal with their problems if we can expect them to have a normal life.” 

After years of paying for therapists from its own funds, last year Alameda County awarded the agency a contract to pay for staff therapists that serve their children and, if the demand is not too high, children in foster homes placed by the county or other agencies. 

Mazandarani hopes that the county will one day grant the agency money to work with former foster children. According to state statistics, 65 percent of the 4,355 teenagers who left foster care in 2001 were homeless when they left the system. 

Roughly 80 percent of foster kids with A Better Way are African American and Latino, and the majority of its foster families are African-American. For white foster parents like Kassof racial differences can provide additional challenges. 

“I had to educate myself on things like hair,” she said of caring for an African-American girl she later adopted. “A social worker had to show me how to take out extensions to make braids.” 

Besides her adopted daughter, Kassof has a biological teenage son and is currently fostering two other children. She said that she has encountered hostility to her multi-racial family, but remains committed to foster parenting. 

“I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing,” she said. “There just aren’t many families like mine.”h