Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Born in the U.S.A.

Congratulations to Sandra Bullock re her new baby boy. According to news reports, Louis Bullock was born in New Orleans and adopted by Ms. Bullock in January. With all the attention on foreign adoptions these days it’s marvelous to see a celebrity respond to a child in our own backyard.

My husband and I had a two-year-old blond, blue-eyed daughter when we adopted a bi-racial boy and girl in the early 70s. People stared at us and asked personal questions that were intrusive and rude, “Where were they born? Do you know anything about their background?”

We politely responded that Elizabeth and John were born in Los Angeles and that’s all we shared with strangers. We had limited information about their biological parents as records were sealed in those days and L.A. County Department of Children’s Services only provided brief knowledge – both were healthy, alert and ready to be placed in a loving home.

In the late 70s fewer couples applied to adopt children born in the U.S. The “crack” pandemic hit urban neighborhoods and women under the horrific influence of drugs gave birth to babies with serious health issues ranging from mental retardation, physical defects and severe emotional disorders. Babies placed in foster care waiting for adoption languished for years in institutions and group homes as families looked to Korea and other Asian outposts for infants. Single women and gay couples were denied the right to adopt a child in this country so they turned to agencies in China where baby girls were readily available.

Today, there are more than 500,000 children growing up in foster care in this country. Substance abuse and HIV among pregnant women has substantially declined. Single men and women and gay couples can adopt infants and older children from public and private agencies but they continue to reach out to Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Families adopting Russian born children are not told the truth about the mother’s prenatal alcohol abuse. One adoptive mother went so far as to return a child with severe psychological problems to Russia without adult supervision on the long flight home.

Madonna, Angelina and Brad, Meg Ryan and others have the resources to provide excellent health care, a superb education and a nurturing environment for their adopted children but they should look closer to home for a child in our welfare system eager to be part of a family.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Familiar Face in the Crowd

I watched Jerry Brown standing in the middle of the theater lobby all by himself. I waited to see if a campaign"handler" joined him but no one appeared by his side. He looked uncomfortable as guests mingled in the large crowd greeting one another. This was a night of gaiety -- 62nd independence celebration of the State of Israel. Finally, I walked over to him, "Hello, Jerry, you don't remember me, I worked on your campaign when you ran for community college board."

"Good to see you, not many people worked on that campaign."

The solitary candidate for Governor of California appeared the same to me as he did in the 70s, alone in a crowd, few people recognized him. He looks just like his father, the late Governor Pat Brown, yet he exudes none of the warmth or social skills that people admired in Brown senior.

Jerry needs to loosen up, extend a hearty handshake, a pat on the back or he'll have few voters campaigning for him again.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Paradise or Perfidy?

There’s no recession in San Francisco. Last weekend I drove down the hill from elegant Pacific Heights to upscale Chestnut street, and then a short distance to the newly-renovated arts and culture Presidio. I smiled at “foodies” lugging bags of fruits and vegetables from the Embarcadero farmer’s market then watched crowds milling in Union Square waiting for the cable car to Ghirardelli Square for a chocolate bar. So many choices in this sparkling emerald city.

Gentrification made its mark -- Victorian homes in the Haight have been treated to a fresh coat of paint and brightly trimmed front doors. Where’s the smell of incense and pot? It’s still a mix of leftover hippie 60s along with moms pushing $800 strollers to nearby Golden Gate Park. I gazed at parents loading babies into car seats in super size BMWs while their golden retrievers swiftly scrambled between the two children ( a perfect family for a Silicon Valley venture capitalist).

Local pride and memory lingers in each community. Stinky fish trails out the door of restaurants in Chinatown while elders smoke in front of shops selling “authentic” Chinese trinkets made in India.

The shimmering Golden Gate Bridge links the city to Marin County where million dollar A-frames stack up the hillside overlooking snug harbors with impeccable yachts.

But there’s more to the “city by the bay.”

Forget cappuccinos and croissants in the Mission or Potrero Hill -- homeless encampments in doorways, worldly possessions stuffed in plastic bags piled high in shopping carts and those fortunate enough to get off the street for a night can get a room in rundown hotels. From former Mayor Willie Brown to current Mayor Gavin Newsome the landscape in downtrodden enclaves of the city haven’t benefited from the boom. Members of San Francisco’s social and political elite have geographic amnesia, a tradition that lingers from one generation to the next.

I left my heart in San Francisco, not.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Locke High School Students Defy Stereotypes

February 2002, L.A. Youth writer Bianca Gallegos investigates Locke High School, a campus in need of attention.

Some of L.A. Youth’s most closely read investigative articles are about schools. Readers alert us to problems on their campuses, or we hear stories about something that seems amiss, as in the case of Locke High School. Teen writer Bianca Gallegos, a senior at Marshall High School in leafy Los Feliz, was outraged that two LAUSD high schools could be so far apart in academic achievement, safety, graduation rate, etc.

“Teachers don't teach. Kids sneak textbooks out of the class. The best students leave and the worst students transfer in—that's how things have been at Locke High School in Watts, one of the most troubled schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Senior Lucia Ortiz described classes taught by substitutes, or by teachers who didn't bother with lessons. Other students told her that some teachers slept in class or talked on their cell phones.”

February 2010. Teacher Jerica Coffey invited L.A. Youth editors Mike Fricano and Laura Lee to speak to students in her English class at Locke High School #3. That first visit grew to a core group of young writers sharing their stories of growing up in South Central L.A. They defied the stereotypes as disengaged gangbangers and dropouts with compelling narratives about their goals for college and careers, providing a better life for their parents and changing the negative images of impoverished black and Latino teens by mainstream media. Covette, Gabriel, Yesenia, Maritza and Frank published their stories in our March issue.

We celebrated their achievements with a “blow-out” party – balloons, flowers, speeches and each student reading aloud their personal story. The school auditorium was filled with parents, friends, teachers from nearby middle schools, siblings and the L.A. Youth staff.

The group of five expanded to 12 eager writers in the past week and a commitment to meet every Thursday from 3 – 6 pm in Ms. Coffey’s classroom. Mike and Laura are reaching out to the community for a passionate journalist to share his/her time once a week at Locke so that every teen gets to experience a one-on-one relationship with an adult editor.

We’re a necessary idea.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Protect Children in Foster Care

L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten is outraged at the number of deaths of children in the L.A. County foster care system. So am I.

With a $2 billion budget, more than 7,000 employees and the highly experienced Trish Ploehn, Director of Dept. of Children and Family Services, overseeing the agency, where’s the safety net for kids? The tragedy of childhood death is a larger social issue, addressing individuals in their environment with layers of poverty, addiction and domestic violence.

Parents have a duty to protect their children from harm. Children enter the child welfare system unprepared for the onslaught of social workers, police officers, mental health professionals, lawyers, judges and others. Their role is to protect the child. Child welfare practitioners and policymakers must be more responsive to the communities they serve. Private caregiver agencies must be monitored with more frequency and closed for even minor infractions.

I want social workers to be more aggressive in investigating and removing children from parents, foster parents and other caregivers with the first sign of abuse. And, I want child welfare workers and parents to access family support services and reunification where a positive outcome is possible.

L.A. County Dept. of Children and Family Services reduced staff and cut support services due to the budget crisis. The Board of Supervisors need to rescind the order for budget cuts. The county needs to hire more social workers, lighten the case worker load and provide more staff training before another child dies.

I’ve worked with foster youth who’ve had a positive experience with a social worker. As the publisher of L.A. Youth, the newspaper by and about teens, I’m extremely proud of our special project giving youth in the foster care system an opportunity to tell their personal stories. Through the Foster Youth Writing and Education Project, which began in 2003, we provide foster youth an opportunity to reflect on their experiences and a forum to voice their concerns, while also informing readers about the system and the challenges foster youth face every day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Reunion

“We need progressive health care, tax reform, creative social welfare, job opportunities.” All part of Obama’s 2008 campaign – not! These were 29-year-old Cathy O’Neill’s messages to voters in 1972 as she campaigned for the 23rd District State Senate seat.

I was part of her ambitious and enthusiastic cadre of volunteers in the general and primary elections. We set up campaign headquarters in her neighbor’s garage in Pacific Palisades. Most of us were young mothers, toting diaper bags and strollers in the crowded space. We stuffed envelopes, walked precincts, made phone calls (with crying babies in the background), urging voters to endorse the bright, visionary candidate.

Cathy, a young social worker and political activist, lost the election by a few hundred votes.

Losing the election didn’t stop Cathy. She went on to found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, a leading United States-based advocacy organization focusing on the needs of refugee women and displaced families. Op-eds frequently appeared with her byline in national and international publications. President Clinton appointed her Director of the United Nations Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Sunday afternoon we held a campaign reunion in the same Palisades home, this time indoors, continuing the “potluck” campaign tradition. How did 38 years passed so quickly? We shared photos of grandchildren, compared Medicare plans, chatted about our winding-down careers and complained about the lack of social reform. Cathy joined us late in the afternoon having spent the past few days in a hospital ICU. Her loving husband, noted journalist and author Richard Reeves, pushed her wheelchair up the stairs while we clapped and cheered at her tenacity to party while immobile and whispered voice. Multiple surgeries in the past 10 years, followed by other complications would depress anyone, yet this vibrant woman managed to join in the laughter as we told campaign stories -- hors d’oeuvres (Lipton onion soup blended with sour cream and a bag of chips served 50 people at one fundraiser) her campaign wardrobe limited to three suits and how she defended her position as a Catholic pro-choice while under attack from local churches.

Cathy never compromised her values, unlike many of our current elected officials. She paved the way for women to seek office and challenged the status quo. The same issues she was passionate about are shouted by community organizers at rallies, in churches, at backyard barbeques, and on the Internet, etc. Sadly, we haven’t made much progress since 1972.

Cathy’s legacy is extraordinary.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Modest Man

Tributes to movie executive Gareth Wigan filled the pages of Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, New York Times and international entertainment blogs when he passed away Feb. 13. He was a highly respected producer, studio executive and production chief at Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox and partnered with Alan Ladd, Jr., Lucy Fisher and others.
I celebrate his life and contributions as a dedicated volunteer and strategic advisor to L.A. Youth. We met last year when he called to inquire about getting involved with us, not just sitting on the board to raise funds, but to participate in day-to-day programs we offer young journalists.
Last night there was a memorial service for Gareth at Sony Pictures. Tributes by top entertainment talent, clips from his many films and amusing stories by his children brought me to tears.
He never mentioned his distinguished career. We were too busy talking politics, L.A.’s high school drop-out crisis, his love of opera and my constant angst about raising money for L.A. Youth. We even branched out to share notes about our families.
Bluster and ego so often displayed by Hollywood executives was not his style. We will miss his quiet dignity and contribution to L.A. Youth.