Aviva plans for an inclusive future

As of October of this year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill granting all transgender children in foster care the right to placement consistent with their gender identity, regardless of the sex listed in government records, California’s social service agencies were obliged to rewrite policies to plan for a more inclusive future. 

A few agencies, however, among them Hollywood-based Aviva Family and Children’s Services, had anticipated that sweeping changes were imminent and were already in the midst of careful self-assessments and interagency discussions on how to better meet the needs of LGBTQ clients. 

“Here we are, in the heart of Hollywood. This is an area of huge diversity and acceptance, and we need to be stepping up and showing that we are really welcoming,” Regina Bette, president and CEO of Aviva, said during a recent discussion at the agency’s offices. 

Aviva currently is at the forefront of local organizations working to prepare the entire youth social services system to navigate LGBTQ issues in the coming years.

Founded in 1915 as an adoption center and residential facility for single women in the Jewish community, Aviva has developed into a nonsectarian, comprehensive agency covering four main areas of service: residential care for adolescent girls, foster care and adoptions, wraparound care and community-based mental health.

“We have to be open to serving people where they are, and serving them as they are,” said Jeffrey Jamerson, vice president of programs and services at Aviva, calling transgender issues “the next platform of transformation.”

A 2014 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, funded by the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s RISE initiative (Recognize, Intervene, Support, and Empower), found that approximately one in five foster youth in Los Angeles — home to the largest population of foster youth in the country — identify as LGBTQ. 

“That’s a huge segment of our foster care system that are not getting their needs met,” said Bette, who was previously on the RISE leadership committee. “They are not going to be prepared to go into adulthood, they are not going to feel good about themselves, they may not even make it.”

The Williams Institute study served as a call to action, Bette said. 

About a year and a half ago, Aviva began sending its staff and prospective foster parents to training sessions with the RISE initiative, a pioneering project backed by the federal government tasked with creating a service model for LGBTQ youth in the foster care system, including combating heterosexism and transphobia, and working to reform policies and best practices. 

And, for the first time, Aviva is receiving calls from county agencies looking for foster placement specifically for transgender youth, said Karina Souquette, Aviva’s assistant vice president of foster care, adoption and intensive-treatment foster care.

Last month, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation awarded Aviva’s Foster Family and Adoption agency its “All Children-
All Families” seal of recognition in acknowledgement of the organization’s commitment to serving LGBTQ youth and families. 

At the start of the process, Aviva used an HRC survey to assess its staff’s preparedness, using the results to conduct a year’s worth of training sessions.

The seal is awarded to agencies that demonstrate their commitment to addressing LGBTQ cultural competency and inclusion by meeting 10 benchmarks covering policy, staff training, and inclusive language, among other areas. To date, the HRC has awarded the seal to over 50 agencies.

In addition, Jamerson is Aviva’s representative to an ongoing “Transgender Needs” collaborative workgroup convened by the Los Angeles County Probation Department to prepare new policies for the county’s group homes. 

According to the group’s leader, Lisa Cambell-Motten, director of the probation department, Aviva is one of four group homes in the county that are ahead of the curve. 

“But the kids are ahead of all of us,” Cambell-Motten said.

One of the issues is that the agency’s license specifies that its residential treatment center is for girls only. 

“I don’t really know if it is all-girl, to be honest,” Bette said. “It’s youth. I don’t know whether we have any biological girls who identify as male. Now we are trying to use ‘youth’ more, but it is really an evolution.

“We are coming up to speed to accept youth in our programs based on what they identify as, but our licensing … they are not fully up to speed yet, but I think they will be there soon,” Bette said. 

The licensing organization, Community Care Licensing, also is participating in the workgroup, and Cambell-Motten said she expects the organization’s certifications to change as a result. 

But there are difficult issues that the workgroup still needs to resolve, including “the possibility that a [self-identifying] girl could become pregnant with her roommate.”

Cambell-Moten said she expects the group to continue meeting throughout the next year. 

In the meantime, Bette and her staff are in the process of updating their program statements to account for gender fluidity. 

“We are evolving as an organization. We are doing it in what I hope is a very respectful and natural way. We are building on the strengths and interests of our staff and helping them to move forward,” Bette said. 

Harriet Zaretsky: A voice for disenfranchised kids of L.A.

For 18 years, Harriet Zaretsky has been devoting her time to helping the abused, abandoned and neglected foster children that the rest of society tends to forget. 
Beginning in 1996, she became a court-appointed special advocate with CASA of Los Angeles, serving as a case manager for some of the most troubled children in the foster-care system. Out of an estimated 28,000 children in foster care in L.A., CASA takes on approximately 800 cases each year that are deemed to be the most dire. “This program brings foster kids in, only when they’re failing,” Zaretsky said. “We’re dealing with the worst 30 percent of foster kids in L.A.” — meaning, the most vulnerable. In her role, Zaretsky acts as both an advocate and overseer, tracking individual cases from start to finish as children make their way out of broken homes and into the tortuous world of foster care.  
“One of my first cases involved nine children,” Zaretsky recalled. “Their mother had a fourth-grade education, and they all had various challenges and medical issues — it isn’t always a happy ending. It isn’t always a happy life.”
Even though she is a licensed attorney, Zaretsky gave up a career practicing law to work full-time as a volunteer. The needs of the children are enormous, she said. As an advocate, she can offer some consolation, as advocates are often the sole consistent adult “anchor” in a foster child’s life. 
“Children just move me,” she said. 
The seed was planted in junior high, when Zaretsky volunteered for a local orphanage and became heartbroken at the living conditions there. “Growing up, I felt lucky, and I felt fortunate, and I saw too many children suffering,” she said. “So there’s a certain amount of appreciation you have, and then there’s this guilt: Why am I so lucky?”
In a cruel twist of fate, Zaretsky’s luck changed in the summer of 2007, when her teenage son, Dillon, was killed in a car accident before his senior year of high school. The tragedy irreparably altered her life, but she was compelled to respond to it: That year, she established the Dillon Henry Foundation, a nonprofit whose work reflects her son’s passions and values — surfing, the environment and global social justice. Each year, the foundation grants 10 college scholarships to deserving seniors from Dillon’s alma mater, Palisades Charter High School. It also subsidizes paid internships with the Surfrider Foundation and supports the work of Jewish World Watch, for which Zaretsky also serves on the board. Through the partnership with Jewish World Watch, Zaretsky established the Dillon Henry Community Health Clinic in the Central African Republic, which provides medical care to survivors of genocide.  
And she shows no signs of slowing up anytime soon. With her 22-year-old daughter off at college in Colorado, Zaretsky decided to foster a 16-year-old boy two days a week. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” she explained, “and I didn’t see any other way to really help him. There are interim periods in people’s lives when they could really use someone to be a help and support to them — because there are no homes for these kids.” 
From her loss, a child gained — the boy has become “a part-time family member,” as Zaretsky described it, included in family vacations, holidays and other meaningful occasions. 
“It was the only way to deal with the blow,” Zaretsky said of her son’s death. “If I wasn’t helping, if I wasn’t doing things that I think [my son] would be proud of, it wouldn’t work. At least by doing these things, I’m leaving a mark for him and for me. I want people to remember his name.” 

Fringe Lev Tahor sect must surrender children, Canadian court rules

A Canadian court ordered the fringe haredi Orthodox Lev Tahor sect to turn over as many as 13 of its children to authorities after some of its members appeared to have fled the country.

Police officers and children’s aid workers visited Lev Tahor homes Wednesday night in Chatham-Kent, in southwest Ontario, with the landlord helping them gain access to residences where no one was home, the Toronto Star reported.

Officers told sect members who answered the door that they were there because of a “court order” and that they were looking for children. The officials refused to answer reporters’ questions.

A court official told the Star that a judge had issued an order for the children after Lev Tahor parents failed to show up in court on Wednesday. The parents were scheduled to appeal a decision to have the children returned to adjacent Quebec.

Some 200 members of Lev Tahor left Quebec for Ontario last fall just before authorities could execute an order from a Quebec court to place 14 children in foster care following allegations of physical abuse, neglect, underage marriages and forced medications in the community.

The affected families were forbidden from leaving Canada. But on Wednesday, nine sect members — three adults and six children, according to the Star — were detained in Trinidad and Tobago. The group was en route to Guatemala when immigration officials at Port of Spain’s Piarco International Airport stopped them, the Trinidad Ministry of National Security said in a statement.

The Lev Tahor members were denied entry because they gave inconsistent answers when questioned by immigration officials, the statement said.

It was not immediately confirmed whether the children detained were those named in the Ontario court order.

However, Stephen Doig, executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, told the Globe and Mail newspaper, “We now apparently have those children missing in defiance of that court order. We would certainly have some concerns about the welfare of those children.”

A Lev Tahor spokesman did not comment on whether the two families targeted by the court order had indeed left for Trinidad. Asked whether the 14 children were still in Chatham, he said, “I don’t think so.”

On Wednesday, another Lev Tahor member told the Toronto Sun that the children who left “are on a trip, on a vacation.”

The rest of the sect remains in Ontario.

Compassion + patience + art = hope for a teen father

She leans in to listen. Today’s challenge is one of the many Dylan Kendall has helped John through in the last two-and-a-half years, and it won’t be the last.

Kendall, 38 and not much over 5 feet tall, presses against the balls of her feet, craning to hear what the 6-foot-4 teen, who was once her foster child, is saying to his social worker. The two are framed by the doorway of her small office. Inside, her assistants hurriedly prepare a fundraiser. In the large adjacent room, homeless youth are taking a fashion-design class put on by Kendall’s nonprofit.

John isn’t saying much. At the other end of the phone line, his social worker cuts him off. He places his free hand atop his short gold-rust hair. “But Kathleen …,” he tries.

He hands Kendall the phone. “She hung up on me,” John says. Kendall shakes her fire-red mane of hair. There is a warrant out for John’s arrest. He missed a court date because a worker at his group home in Van Nuys told him he wasn’t on the docket. And his social worker is unwilling to help.

He slouches into a chair pushed against the wall of the tight office. His blue eyes, often inscrutable, are sad. Everything is moving fast for him. Kendall touches his head tenderly.

Two weeks ago, John turned 18. Two weeks before that he was arrested for threatening to beat up a boy in his group home. And it has only been six weeks since his 19-year-old girlfriend gave birth to his baby. The arrest warrant is the most immediate problem. But looming greater is the day, coming soon, when he ages out of the foster care system and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) will terminate his case.

There are a few options for young people like John. There are a handful of private transitional housing programs, some vocational training, but only 384 DCFS beds for the 1,400 foster youth who walk out of Los Angeles County’s care every year.

In the back parking lot of Kendall’s Hollywood Media and Arts nonprofit, John lights up a cigarette. He is angry that his social worker hung up on him; that she gave up on him. “When I came back from jail I seen my social worker, and she said you’re gonna be homeless and its gonna be your fault; not my fault, it’s gonna be your fault. After that I just gave up. I said I’m done with DCFS. They are done with me, and I am done with them.”

But while John’s case is replicated by many of the thousands of other children who have passed through DCFS’s gates, he’s a lucky one. He has someone special in his corner. He has Dylan Kendall.

Kendall’s life changed when she was 28, living in Oakland and working on her bachelor’s degree at the California Academy of Fine Arts. She rented a cheap loft in a bad part of the city. Every day she woke up to poverty. She saw emaciated pit bulls and kids listlessly spending their days on the stoops of dilapidated homes. “Everyone has an epiphany movement,” she says. Seeing the extreme poverty “began the process of me being less self-invested. And from that point on I sought out ways to make myself stronger, so I that I was able to effectively cause change against injustice.”

Kendall is one of those people who can’t stop giving, even when the odds seem impossibly against the causes she takes on. In the spirit of tikkun olam — healing the world — it’s in her nature to invest in people.

Part of her self-divestment meant coming home to Los Angeles to study education at UCLA. Kendall, 38, says she was driven to make the world a gentler place. Raised by parents with strong Jewish traditions, Kendall came closer to her Judaism as she moved further from herself.

“I fundamentally believe that everyone should do something. If we don’t, there are too many people that are hurting, and I don’t like to see pain. That really frustrates me.”

What she quickly found was that to alleviate hurt, people need safe places. For herself, Kendall could find safety and nourishment from a passage in the Torah, or a service at her synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood. For John, Kendall’s presence and her openhearted offering to let him into her world was — and is — helping him build a life.

Back in her office, Kendall calls John’s public defender. She looks for housing that will take in a good kid with a not-so-good record. She calls John’s girlfriend, Karina, in South Los Angeles, and asks how the baby is doing. (Both teens have asked that their last names be withheld to protect their privacy.)

Kendall looks out through the Plexiglas separating her office from Hollywood Media and Arts’ common area. Ten or more black, Latino and white homeless young men and women work on the computers Kendall raised the funds to buy. Behind a screen, past the monitors, another group is taking a class on mythology. And if you listen carefully enough, you can hear homeless youth banging on a drum set through the heavily padded walls of the studio on the second floor. For Kendall they are all important.

But the most important one is standing outside, looking at a hard road ahead, with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles City Council President ) and Dylan Kendall (Hollywood Arts Executive Director) speak at “A Night of Magic and Inspiration” in 2006

Problems and Promise

Just off Motor Avenue in West Los Angeles, about where cars shoot out from under the 10, a simple sign points the way onto the campus of Vista del Mar Child and Family Services. Go fast and you’ll miss the sign and the 17.5 acres beyond it of bungalows, recreation areas and service buildings.

Through an army of staff and volunteers, Vista del Mar and its five agencies form one of the largest providers of adoption, foster care, psychiatric, crisis intervention and health services in California.

Vista touches thousands of lives. It operates at a constant deficit on a $24 million annual budget. And you can bet Vista — like every social service provider in Los Angeles — is eyeing President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative very, very carefully.

The initiative is controversial, but like most good controversies, the sides are not shaping up quite as you’d expect. Some liberals who ordinarily would be at the barricades defending the separation of church and state wouldn’t mind funneling chunks of government change into their social service programs. Some conservatives, who would ordinarily leap to defend a federal program that recognized the value of religion in American life, don’t want to see their tax dollars go to religious groups they don’t like.

In fact, Bush’s plan to spread "compassionate conservatism" has already created the kind of open religious rancor that, well, the wall between church and state is supposed to help block. In statements on the initiative, Jerry Falwell demeaned the Muslim faith, Pat Robertson slammed the Hare Krishnas and the Anti-Defamation League, and everybody pretty much unloaded on the Church of Scientology and Louis Farrakhan.

By last Monday, the administration was rethinking the most controversial portion of its initiative: a proposal to expand the charitable choice provision of a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that lets religious charities compete for government welfare dollars.

Bush’s initial proposal called for opening up government funding opportunities from a few programs to more than 100, in areas ranging from after-school programs to community policing. Local Jewish-based charities would like to be among the funded.

Vista del Mar was founded in 1908 as the Jewish Orphans Home, and today its clientele is about 40 percent Jewish. In order to receive the government grants it currently does, Jewish Orphans Home needed to file a DBA under the Vista name.

"We are investigating ways the [faith-based] program might apply to us," said Gerald Zaslaw, Vista’s CEO and president. The majority of Vista’s many services have no religious component, but the Bush proposal set Zaslaw thinking that it might be possible to tease out the ones that do, such as High Holiday services and other specifically religious programming. "It’s going to be tough to separate out the Jewish elements," Zaslaw said.

The same thinking is going on over at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). Upwards of 75 percent of its clients are Jewish, but the counseling and intervention services it provides have no religious component. They can’t: the organization, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, receives about $800,000 annually in federal money. But director Paul Castro figures some of the faith-based funding might be available for specialized services, such as its Orthodox Counseling Program.

Castro worries that the administration’s idea might reverse a time-honored notion of social service providers: meet the clients where they are. "We don’t impose our agency’s underlying spiritual values on the client. It’s about the client, not who we are," he said. "Our concern is this flips it." In other words, a person who is desperate for one type of counseling may have to take it with a dose of the provider’s religion.

That scenario frightens providers, but not enough for them to dismiss the whole program. "You’re going to have to set up some safeguards, but I think there could be tremendous value," said Rabbi Hershey Ten, who founded and directs The Jewish Healthcare Foundation–Avraham Moshe Bikur Cholim (JHF). JHF provides free and subsidized health care and social assistance throughout Los Angeles and California.

Faith-based groups, Ten asserted, can deliver some services more effectively at the local level. They know the needy, and the needy trust them. "This is not a question of separation of church and state," said Ten. "It’s about the best way of delivering a product to the market."

And paying for it. For the people at Gateways Beit T’Shuvah, a residential therapeutic community for Jewish addicts and ex-convicts, the faith-based funding could be a boon. Unlike other social service groups founded or run by members of the Jewish community, Beit T’Shuvah (the House of Return), has a solely Jewish clientele and uses Judaism in its recovery program.

"To me it sounds like what I’ve been waiting for," Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto said of the initiative. "We never sought government funding because we remain a Jewish program. Judaism is intrinsic to what we do here, because it enhances the recovery process."

The president’s initiative sounds like just the kind of policy Rossetto said she would oppose if it weren’t for the fact that those she serves would benefit mightily from the extra funding. "Everybody I usually agree with disagrees with me on this," Rossetto said.

Whether those disagreements can be worked out depends on the details of the final faith-based initiative that Bush proposes: what groups will be eligible, how they will be assessed, what they can and can’t do with the funds. As of now, the administration has gone back to the drawing board.

Ultimately, says JFS’s Castro, "it’s hard to tell how the initiative will play out. We’re monitoring it. By the time it gets down to local level, it may look very different."

If it gets down here at all.

Mothers and Daughters

White Oleander

By Janet Fitch

Little, Brown, $24..

When author Janet Fitch was 9, her longtime friend disappeared into the netherworld of the Los Angeles foster care system.

The girl’s mother had died, then her father and an elderly aunt. When her older brother, a junkie, was arrested, the terrified child was whisked away to parts unknown and Fitch never saw her again. “That haunted me,” the author says. “To know on a gut level that things could happen, through no fault of your own, and you could just disappear.”

Fitch’s acclaimed, best-selling debut novel, “White Oleander” (Little, Brown $24), explores her childhood concern. The book examines how an adolescent’s life disintegrates after her mother, Ingrid, a coldly beautiful, self-absorbed poet, murders her faithless lover and goes to prison. Twelve-year-old Astrid roams from foster home to foster home in every corner of Los Angeles, struggling to fashion an identity in the company of strangers.

The book’s protagonists are Nordic and non-Jewish, but Fitch says the novel reflects her own Jewish concerns. “White Oleander” began as Fitch was attending a 12-step program and searching for spirituality seven years ago. It was a turning point in her life, she says. Raised in an “overly-assimilated” family in Los Angeles, she wanted her young daughter to have the solid Jewish identity she lacked. She purchased her first menorah and attempted to celebrate Chanukah, though she didn’t know anything about the Festival of Lights. “We sang ‘Light My Fire’ and anything that had the word ‘candle’ in it,” laughs Fitch, who went on to light Shabbat candles and attend High Holiday services.

She also began to think about one of her favorite books, “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,” which describes a moral system that was anything but Jewish. Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the Heian Empress Teishi in 11th-century Japan, lived in a cruel, beautiful world where the sensibility was strictly aesthetic. “I began to wonder, ‘What if a person like that were forced to live in a crummy apartment and work a crummy job at the end of the 20th century?'” says Fitch, who promptly created Ingrid, the monster. “I thought Ingrid was funny, but no one else did. So I gave her a daughter, and then it wasn’t funny anymore. It was a crime against nature.”

Fitch, like the fictional Astrid, is a survivor. A shy, intense child, she once sought to win the favor of a third-grade teacher with a lovingly-rendered short story. “I wanted her to like me,” the Silver Lake author recalls. But the paper came back with nary a remark, save spelling and grammar corrections. “I did not write again until I was 21,” Fitch says.

She cobbled together a living by working as a typesetter and an entertainment journalist, a discipline she loathed. She didn’t sell her first short story for 12 years. During a nursery school exercise, Fitch’s daughter was once asked, “What kind of mail do you receive?” “We get rejection letters,” she replied.

One of them was encouraging, however. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote Fitch that her short story was too long for the Ontario Review, but might make a strong first chapter for a novel. “I kept that Post-It on my computer for years,” says Fitch, who turned the chapter into “White Oleander.”

When the book hit the stores this year, the author was thrilled just to have a publisher. Then Oprah called. The famed talk show host loved the novel and picked it to join her book club. “White Oleander” shot to the top of the best-seller lists and a Warner Bros. movie is in the works.

All the attention has been “surreal,” Fitch says. But, like Astrid, she knows that “anything can happen,” so she has matter-of-factly gone back to work, this time on a novel inspired by her Jewish grandmother’s experience as an exiled New Yorker in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, she is looking forward to appearing on a panel about mothers and daughters at the People of the Book, the Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 16. “The act of considering moral questions is Jewish,” she says of Astrid’s journey in “White Oleander.” “The active, personal involvement with developing an ethical system is one of the major components of Judaism.”

Janet Fitch will appear Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. at the West Valley JCC in West Hills. For information, call (818) 464-3300.

Holiday Toy Drive

Vista Del Mar and Family Services and DIVE! restaurant are teaming up for a holiday toy drive. Bring an unwrapped toy to the Century City restaurant between Nov. 28 and Dec. 22, and you’ll receive 10 percent off your total lunch or dinner check.

Vista Del Mar, originally the Jewish Home for Orphans, is now a state-of-the-art, multiservice mental and behavioral health nonprofit agency that helps abused, neglected and/or abandoned children through individual and family counseling, educational and vocational programs, and foster-care and adoption services. The programs are offered to children and families, regardless of race, religion, gender or their ability to pay.

For more information, call (310) 788-DIVE. –Staff Report