Maria Ortiz has found her greatest rewards in life nurturing the wounded, protecting the vulnerable and teaching the fallen to stand.
In other words, Ortiz says, just being a good mom.
In the last dozen years, more than 15 foster children, most of them abused or neglected, have found refuge in Ortiz’s South San Francisco home. She has formally adopted three of them, now 19, 16 and 15. When her husband Manuel passed away last year, Ortiz vowed to continue her work with foster children.
“Some people say, ‘How come you have so many kids?’ They think I’m crazy,” laughs Ortiz. “But I think God gave me the patience and the love to do it, and they love me like a mom.”
But as Ortiz continues her labor of love, San Mateo County is struggling with a critical shortage of people willing to become foster parents.
The numbers have been declining for years, said San Mateo Human Services Agency Social Work Supervisor Carlos Smith. County officials suspect the rising cost of living on the Peninsula has reduced the number of foster families in the past decade by half. There are more than 400 children in the system, but only 148 licensed foster homes. Only 32 of the licensed parents are willing to take in teenagers.
The problem has become so dire, Smith said, that more than one-third of foster care children are routinely placed outside the county.
“These kids have already been separated from their birth parents. We don’t want to also separate them from their schools, school districts, friends and family members,” he said.
Smith said that although parents of ethnic backgrounds are needed, there is a disproportional number of children of color in the San Mateo County system. Of the kids currently in foster care, a third are Hispanic and 28 percent are black.
One-third of the children in San Mateo County’s foster care system ended up there due to “caretaker incapacity,” often due to a parent’s jail stint. Another 45 percent are taken from there homes due to neglect, while about 16 percent were abused, according to county statistics.
The Human Services Agency will hold two orientation sessions at its north and south county offices. The first will be held at May 6 at 7 p.m. at 400 Harbor Blvd., Building B in Belmont. The second will held at May 20 at 7 p.m. at 1487 Huntington Ave. in South San Francisco.