I arrived at the Westin South Coast Plaza last Friday with a lot on my mind.
Deadlines, new business proposals, looming dental surgery and a burnt out headlight were all nagging at me. My attitude of gratitude was waning.
Yet, as soon as I walked in to the reception for the 44 Women for Children and saw all the smiling faces, I began to relax. In one room a beautiful silent auction was captivating guests; in another, Emmy-winning television star, celebrity stylist and the luncheon’s keynote speaker, Carson Kressley (best known for his role on the Bravo hit series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”) was merrily taking pictures with guests, adding to the festive atmosphere.
In 1999, 44 Women for Children, an auxiliary of Orangewood Children’s Foundation, was founded by distinguished philanthropist and Corona del Mar resident Susan Samueli. The group is devoted to supporting Orangewood Children’s Foundation and focuses on nurturing, supporting and inspiring adolescents emancipating from the foster care system on their 18th birthdays. They do this by providing mentoring and education; increasing community awareness about child abuse and neglect; and hosting annual fundraising events like the one last Friday.
Though everyone at the event enjoyed the afternoon, especially Carson’s fanciful fashion and lifestyle tips, the impetus behind the fundraiser is serious. When I began writing my column and looked in to the statistics about foster care in Orange County, I was overwhelmed with the numbers, and the toll the issues have on our community.
For example, in fiscal 2010/2011, there were more than 36,000 reports of suspected child abuse, neglect or abandonment in Orange County alone. The ages of these children range from newborns to teens and come from every imaginable county-wide ethnic group.
Orangewood Children & Family Center admits approximately 10 percent of the most serious of these cases. With more than 3,400 children being dependents of the court, at least 2,500 of those children each month are forced to endure the distress and disruption of being placed in out-of-home care.
The statistics are especially brutal for the older foster care teens, with about 200 to 250 “aging out” of the dependency system each year on their 18th birthdays. Of these, at least 46 percent lack a high school degree, versus 16 percent of the general population of their contemporaries.
Complicating matters even more, fewer than 10 percent who manage to graduate from high school go on to college and of those who do, only 2 percent earn a college degree. It’s easy to understand why education is not the highest priority when 65 percent of the emancipating foster youth transition out of foster care with no place to live.
The result? Fifty-one percent are unemployed within four years of leaving foster care, and 70 percent of all state prison inmates are known to have been in foster care at some point in their lives.
Despite the hard reality and statistics of the foster care system, the news is not all bad, and there are success stories that show how organizations like Orangewood help some children get, and stay, on the right track.
A former foster youth, Tina, who received an Orangewood scholarship to attend a local university, spoke during the luncheon, sharing her earliest memory of her father beating her mother. For years, her parents were consumed by drug addiction, neglecting Tina and her two younger siblings.
The three were ultimately removed from the home and placed into foster care when Tina was eight years old. For six years they were bounced between foster homes and family. Eventually, her mother regained custody but relapsed a few years later when Tina was a senior in high school. Since then, Tina has taken on primary responsibility for her younger sister and brother, putting her own educational goals on hold.
Thanks to the help of 44 Women for Children and Orangewood scholarships, after five years Tina has successfully earned her A.A. from a local community college and transferred to a four-year university.