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Former juvenile court child advocate volunteer creates model foster agency for ‘at risk’ babies

Cathy Richman (Photo: Jon Clark)
Cathy Richman (Photo: Jon Clark)

By Arthur Lightbourn

We’ve all heard tragic stories about children who are placed into traditional county foster homes only to end up being further abused and often scarred for life, but we, as individuals, rarely do anything about it.

Cathy Richman is an exception. She did do something about it and, for the past 14 years, has continued to do so — one child at a time, one lap at a time.

Richman is the founder of a unique nonprofit foster family agency, Angels Foster Family Network, dedicated to finding “exceptional” foster parents for infants and toddlers who have been taken into foster care protective custody after being neglected, abandoned, or abused.

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Unlike traditional county foster care parents, Angels’ foster caregivers are required to undergo psychological screening before being accepted and are permitted to foster only one child at a time (two if the children are siblings), whereas traditional county foster parents are not psychologically screened and can take up to six children at a time.

Angels’ foster parents also have to agree to care for a child until permanent placement is decided either through reunification with the rehabilitated birth parent or through adoption.

The Angels’ agency, since it was founded in 1998, has enlisted foster parents from all over the county to care for 506 babies who otherwise might have been swept into the revolving door of the county’s over-extended foster homes system.

“So far,” Richman said, “190 families have fostered with us. Many have fostered multiple children and 117 children have been adopted by Angels’ families.”

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We interviewed Richman in her compact, homey office in the Eagles Nest Office Building, 4420 Hotel Circle Court, in Mission Valley, shortly after she returned from the wedding of her youngest son, Luke (Hartig), 31, a Pentagon counter-terrorism specialist, to NPR national security correspondent Rachel Martin in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Richman, 62, is a tall (5’9”), auburn-haired mother of three, grandmother of two, former legal secretary and former court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteer in San Diego’s foster care system who witnessed first hand the effects of bad placements of children in foster homes.

“What became really disturbing to me was the foster homes that my [advocate] kids were in I felt were damaging these children. Some of the homes were physically abusive. Some were even worse. So I found that I was spending the majority of my time fighting to get my advocate kids out of those homes into other homes.

“What I also experienced were some just phenomenal foster homes that showed me the major difference.”

She recalled seeing one child who was thought to be autistic suddenly bloom when she was transferred to another home that was compassionate and loving and where the foster parent said she had one lap to take in one child at a time.

“I began to believe,” Richman said, “that many people go into foster care that are not qualified. They go into it for the wrong reasons because there’s a financial incentive and they take in way too many children.”

Cathy Richman was born Cathy Cour in Portland, Oregon.

“My father was a sports writer, who, when we moved to San Diego, became a sports writer for the San Diego Tribune. But when I was born, my mother really didn’t want to be a mother…and when my brother came along, it got worse. So when I was 4 … my father divorced, had custody of us and remarried.”

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Her father traveled a lot, she said, and didn’t realize that their stepmother was mentally and physically abusive towards Cathy and her brother.

Cathy graduated from Helix High School in La Mesa in 1968, became a legal secretary, married early, had three sons, served as a foster mom, divorced and remarried.

“When I started doing the [CASA] advocacy work and I would go into these homes, and I saw these children, who, to me, looked like they were being treated like stepchildren. It really touched a lot of nerves from my own childhood and I believe that drove me to do the work I do.”

After five years as a CASA volunteer who had advocated for 17 children, she left CASA and began speaking out in the community to improve the foster care system.

Initially, she thought, “If we could get people who would just take one child, not six, and give that child the love and the nurturing it needed, we would be far ahead.

“At that point, I didn’t really have a focus on any particular age group. I just felt we could find better quality foster parents if we just didn’t overwhelm them with so many children.”

Gradually, she realized that babies and toddlers were the age group for which she could actually make a difference.

Children under the age of 3 comprise a third of 3,878 foster children in the county.

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“And, yet the attitude at the time was: ‘The babies won’t remember. So if you move them around to different homes, it’s not going to matter.’”

Not so, she discovered after talking to experts.

Birth to 3 years old is the most critical time in a child’s development and one of the worst times to shift a child from one foster home to another.

In traditional county foster care, a baby will typically live in three different foster homes before the child’s first birthday.

Armed with these facts, Richman decided to open her agency and to focus totally on finding, screening and training “exceptional” foster parents for infants and toddlers, and provide the caregivers with weekly visits and support from Angels’ social workers who would also attend any mandated birth-parent visitations and all court dates.

With the financial help of her husband, Larry Richman, owner of Heritage Security Services, she rented an office for $160 a month, brought her computer and a clock from home, and installed a phone “that never rang because I had no business.”

It took six months for her to become an agency licensed by the state of California to certify foster families, operating independently, but in cooperation with San Diego County Social Services.

“I had been a legal secretary, but I knew nothing about nonprofits. I didn’t even know what a grant was, but I learned,” she said. “All I knew was I had this passion and urgency to change things if I could.”

She attended workshops to learn how to write grants and soon received her first grant of $25,000 from the Alliance Healthcare Foundation that enabled her to hire a part- time social worker and, in 1999, to place her first foster baby.

Today, her Angels’ agency operates on an annual budget of $650,000 from private donations and grants and has a staff of 10, including five full-time and two part-time social workers. At any one time, she has up to 45 parents actively caring for foster children.

Being a private agency, instead of a government agency, she said, “allows us to be very, very selective about whom we allow to foster and to carry very low caseloads. Our caseworkers each carry a maximum of 15 cases.”

The success of the Angels’ model has inspired the founding of similar Angels-modeled sister agencies in Santa Barbara and Oklahoma City. Richman has earned a number of honors for her work, including being named one of one of the Salvation Army’s “Fifteen Fantastics,” Women of Dedication in 2011.

More information on Angels is available on its Website:

www.angelsfoster.org

Quick Facts

Name:

Cathy Richman

Distinction:

Richman is the founder, CEO and executive director of the Angels Foster Family Network, an independent, private foster family agency dedicated to enlisting, screening, training and certifying “exceptional” foster parents for infants and toddlers who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. Since 1999, she has placed more than 500 babies with foster parents, ‘one baby at a time in one lap at a time.’

Richman has earned a number of honors for her work, including being named one of one of the Salvation Army’s “Fifteen Fantastics,” Women of Dedication in 2011.

Family:

Married 16 years to Larry Richman, owner of Heritage Security. She has three grown sons from an earlier marriage: Justin, 40, a carpenter; Matthew, 38, a San Diego firefighter; and Luke, 31, a Harvard graduate and Pentagon counter-terrorism specialist.

Interests:

Her grandchildren (two and one on-the-way), theater, movie-going, and dance exercising

Reading:

“A Boy Should Know How to Tie a Tie: And Other Lessons for Succeeding in Life,” by author, film producer, screenwriter and former abused foster child Antwone Fisher.

Favorite films:

Among her recent favorites are: “The Descendants” and “The Artist.” She’s a big movie buff.

Favorite getaway

: Miraval Arizona Resort, Tucson, Arizona

Philosophy:

“It’s not what happens to you in life; it’s how you handle it.”


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