The noise of tourists and joggers that usually fills Capitol Park was disrupted Thursday by a sobering five-hour roll call: “Serenity, 8. Dustin, 13. Hugo, 11.”
Legislators and people from the community held the podium from 10.a.m. to 2 p.m. reading the first names and ages of 11,000 children in the state foster care system, part of their bid to draw attention to what they said was the desperate need to find good homes for foster children. The readers, including Assemblymen Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, as well as former member Roger Dickinson, spoke in five-minute shifts.
More than 66,000 children live in the state’s foster care system, said Gail Johnson Vaughan of Grass Valley nonprofit group Families NOW, which works closely with state Child Protective Services to make sure kids have families when they leave foster care. That number includes children enrolled in reunification programs with their birth families or staying temporarily with relatives.
Of that total, 11,000 children have no chance of being reunited with or adopted by relatives, and must be adopted by outside parties, Johnson Vaughan said.
“The really important thing about reading these names is it makes these children real,” she said. “These children are nameless and faceless. People may hear statistics, but they have no idea there are so many.”
The number of children in California foster care has shrunk by about 40 percent over the last 15 years, according to the think tank the Public Policy Institute of California. Still, about 11,000 children remain in need of adoption, a number that has stayed constant through the years. Thursday’s event was the 27th year of the vigil, which is sponsored by the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, Sacramento County and a handful of adoption agencies.
About half of children who emancipate from the foster care system without families end up homeless, imprisoned or dead within two years, Johnson Vaughan said. Studies show children who stay in foster care for long periods move frequently, which hurts their emotional health and chances of academic success.
Brooke Myers-Awalt, 31, and Gregory Awalt, 36, came to the roll call with their two biological children, their adopted two-year-old Ruby and another toddler whom they are in the final stages of adopting. Myers-Awalt called the reading of the names “heartbreaking” and urged others to consider expanding their families with foster care children.
“We’re hoping this will help raise awareness about how many of these kiddos are in need of homes, and how many homes are in need of these kiddos,” she said.
“I just wish I could take them all home,” said Gregory Awalt. “Ruby is a miracle child. (Bringing her home) was an amazing experience. ... I’m looking forward to completing our family.”
Assembly Bill 519 would eliminate placement of children under the age of 16 into long-term foster care and instead require specific efforts toward placing children in permanent homes.
“This is one of few years (at the vigil) where we’ve actually had a legislative ask,” Johnson Vaughan said. “We’re calling on the leaders here to look at this bill and say that this is what we owe our children.”