La Jolla resident, attorney, foster youth advocate and mother Leslie Gladstone takes on that role, helping fulfill a longstanding need in San Diego County through her work on the board of directors at Angels Foster Family Network, a nonprofit foster-family agency that connects at-risk infants and toddlers with families throughout San Diego.
More than serving as an advocate for other parents to open up their homes to foster babies, Gladstone became a foster parent herself nearly 10 years ago.
“It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do — to help a child that needed help — and there are so many here in San Diego that do,” she said.
Although she knew from an early age that she wanted to foster a child, it wasn’t until she was 40 and already had a daughter of her own when she decided to take the leap. She was referred to Angels by a friend, went through two months of rigorous training and finally fostered her “Angels baby,” 22-month-old Selena.
“They do a phenomenal job of acting as liaison between the county and the parents, as well as the birth parents. They hold your hand through the entire process and provide a lot of education and support,” she said. “It’s pretty quick once you’re qualified. It was only a week after [completing training] when I got the call, and Selena came to live with me.”
Now Selena is 11 and living with Gladstone as her legally adopted daughter.
Her family may not seem conventional from the outside — with birth daughter Jessica, 16, Selena and Selena’s birth sister Ana, 17, all living under one roof — but Gladstone said her family is just like any other.
“They’ve always considered themselves to be sisters,” she said. “They love each other and hate each other just like any other sisters do.”
Despite facing some obstacles, Gladstone said her decision to foster and adopt Selena was the most rewarding decision she has ever made.
“There are challenges, and I think you have to look at yourself as to why you’re doing this,” she said. “You have to be ready for anything — as you have to be with any child — and just be prepared to open up your heart and have some real love in it.”
That trait — love — is the only common one required of foster parents, she said.
“[Foster parents] have a deep caring for children and an understanding and patience with the system, because it can sometimes be challenging,” she said. “For example, if you have a child that was physically abused and you have to maintain visits with the parent who was the abuser.”
The overarching reward, however, to both the foster parents and children trumps any obstacle.
“There are difficulties, but even if it is a short time, you have with these children, you are absolutely saving their lives, and they will have a remarkably better life,” she said. “If you are in a situation where you can help a child, you can really have a huge affect on the lives of these little kids.”
Angels Foster Family Network specializes in abused and neglected children 3 years old and younger with a unique focus on preventing what is known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). During the child’s crucial period of development, severe neglect, abuse or separation from caregivers can result in a persistent failure to communicate or respond to social interactions in a developmentally appropriate way, affecting a child’s life well beyond the age of 3.
“If a child doesn’t form an emotional bond with someone by the time they are 3, they can never form it. That is really one of Angels’ main missions is to get them into a loving home — even if it’s not a permanent home — during that crucial time so they can have a bond with another human being,” Gladstone explained.
Many of these children have had early experiences that are “absolutely horrendous,” she said.
“We’ve had children who have tested positive for drugs — basically born addicted to drugs. We’ve had some children with most of their bones broken from physical abuse. We have severe neglect, where they’re nowhere near what their proper weight is supposed to be,” she said. “It’s horrible. There are just so many sad situations and so many children who didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
Angels has become the county’s go-to choice when a child is removed from his or her home, Gladstone said. Since the nonprofit’s inception in 1999, Angels has provided foster homes to more than 550 babies in San Diego. A number of children, however, continue to be turned away each day because there are not enough foster families available for the county’s needs, particularly in key areas like east and south county.
Gladstone urges anyone who has thought about fostering a child to take the leap as she did.
“It is absolutely, without a doubt, the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life,” she said. “Don’t wait as long as I did, because it’s just a fabulous way to make a real difference in the world, give help where help is needed, and be rewarded in the process.”
For more information about fostering a child or how else you can help, visit www.angelsfoster.org or call (619) 283-8100.