Fostering Foster Care
Regina Louise lived in 30 different foster homes. Now she's trying to make sure no other child has to go thorugh that.
Regina Louise’s childhood was the stuff of nightmares. Abandoned by her mother at birth, Louise spent her childhood in 30 different foster homes. She was physically abused in some homes, emotionally neglected in others. And when she did find a guardian who loved her, the courts denied her adoption.
“It was like strapping yourself to a rolling stone,” says Louise of being shuttled from one foster home to another. “You don’t stop. You come in with a cardboard box or a Glad garbage bag; sharp objects are poking through the plastic. Your stuff is exposed the moment you walk through the door.”
Now 43, the Pleasant Hill resident says no child should have to go through what she did, and her life’s mission is to make sure the kind of experience she suffered becomes a thing of the past. As a spokesperson for National Foster Care Month, Louise will travel across the country in May, telling her story to enlighten others about the plight faced by more than 500,000 children in the foster care system nationwide.
Despite her tough start, Louise grew up to be an accomplished businesswoman, running successful hair salons in Berkeley and San Francisco. And in 2003, she published her memoir, Somebody’s Someone, about her childhood. The revealing, heartbreaking autobiography drew raves and is being optioned for film and theater productions. It also got the attention of Jeanne Kerr-Taylor, a counselor who worked at a group home in Martinez where Louise stayed briefly.
Kerr-Taylor tried to adopt Louise in 1976 but was denied by the Contra Costa courts because interracial adoptions were frowned upon at the time. The two were reunited after the success of Somebody’s Someone, and Kerr-Taylor adopted Louise in November 2003, when Louise was 40.
Louise finally got the loving mother she wanted. Kerr-Taylor travels with Louise, scheduling and videotaping all of the presentations as Louise urges philanthropists, policy makers, judges, educators, social workers, and therapists at dozens of social-service conferences to do all they can to help foster kids.
As a keynote speaker at private and public foundations, Louise often reads from Somebody’s Someone. She finds that her story of a childhood spent in a constant search for a loving relationship galvanizes the frontline workers.
“My message is that love is never wasted,” she says. “Because when that woman loved me for that one inch of time of my life, that love sustained me until we reconnected.”
Virginia Pryor, chair of National Foster Care Month, first heard Louise speak at a conference for youths transitioning out of foster care. “She makes you want to know how you can help so that another young person doesn’t have that kind of experience,” says Pryor. “It’s hard to hear about her life in foster care, but it’s easy to embrace her because of how she tells the story. She made us all cry.”
Kerr-Taylor also has seen the power of her daughter’s message: “Hearing Regina speak strikes the chords of my heart and retunes them,” she says. “She has transformed people. They walk out refreshed, rejuvenated, ready to conquer the world.”
Every year, 20,000 kids are old enough to leave the system. But with nowhere to
go, Louise says half of them become homeless in the first year.
The problem isn’t going away. California’s child welfare system is the largest in the nation. Of the more than 500,000 foster care children in the United States, approximately 83,000 are in California and about half are 10 or younger. Contra Costa has about 1,835 foster care children, and the system is in a constant state of burnout. Each county social worker carries a caseload of 23 to 25 children, more than the recommended number.
Luckily, the system has undergone some improvements since Louise was a child. Two years ago, Contra Costa introduced a tracking system that alerts social workers when a child has had more than five placements.
That’s a significant yet small step in the fight to reform the system. But Louise warns that helping children entails more than government involvement.
“Maybe I can convince people that they don’t have to go to Croatia or China to find a child,” she says. “No offense to anybody who adopts internationally, but we can do it here, too. Let’s clean up our own backyard.”
May is National Foster Care Month. For national foster care information, go to www.reginalouise.com, www.cwla.org, and www.fosterclub.org. For Alameda County, visit www.alamedasocialservices.org; for Contra Costa County, visit www.ehsd.org.