[The Episcopal News] Christmas can’t come fast enough for young brothers Jimmy, 7, and 5-year-old Mark. The family tree’s been decorated, they’ve visited Santa at a local park, and now and again St. Nick randomly drops off a note or gift for each of them, says their foster mom, Rebecca Bardales.

“They’re getting more and more excited,” Bardales told The Episcopal News in a recent telephone interview. “Mark wants to hear Christmas songs in the shower. We’re watching the movies, like The Nightmare Before Christmas, for the first time this year.”

And, this year, also for the first time, Jimmy and Mark will receive their very own initialed ornaments to hang on the tree – “red, white and green plaid with crystals” – as part of a family tradition. (The names of the children have been changed to protect their identities.)

“Every ornament has a story to tell,” Bardales said. Each has been collected “from wherever we’ve visited, or else we’ve received them as gifts. Now they’ll have ornaments with their initials, too, and we want them to start sharing their story around the tree.”

A foster family brought together by HFS takes a stroll on the beach.

In June 2022 HFS (Holy Family Services), an institution of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, brought the boys into the lives of Rebecca and Luis Bardales who, after a dozen years of marriage, were childless.

HFS Executive Director Julie Brown said that the agency, which will observe its 75th anniversary in 2024, has been training and supervising foster parents since the 1970s, but has been known mostly for adoptions. She aims to change that.

“We are pushing for more foster parents right now because we are seeing a big push for homes from the counties,” she told the News via email. “We are seeing that the children in need of placement are not just teens. There is now a larger need for zero- to five-year-olds because most foster parents are requesting school-aged children so they can work.” Children ages zero to five years, she noted, need 24-hour care.

Los Angeles County currently has 21,000 children under supervision, the largest number of children in foster care nationwide, Brown said. Unfortunately, the number of families willing to serve as foster parents has decreased since the pandemic, Brown said. The agency currently has five foster youth in care and three others who have been approved to foster.

“During Covid, the numbers went down because most families were at home and abuses were not as obviously seen by others. Now, the numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels, but there are fewer foster parents because many ‘retired’ during the pandemic. We would really like to bring on new foster parents to fill this void.”

Bishop John Harvey Taylor recently issued an appeal to diocesan congregations and families, detailing the need for prospective foster parents.

“The need for loving and compassionate homes has never been greater, and I believe that as members of our faith community, we are uniquely positioned to respond to this urgent call,” Taylor wrote.

“As followers of Christ, we are called to emulate his love, compassion, and care for the most vulnerable among us. In Matthew 19;14, Jesus says, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ These words serve as a poignant reminder of the importance of safeguarding and nurturing children in our midst. By opening our hearts and homes to children in need, we participate in God’s redemptive work and embody his love in a tangible way,” he said in the appeal letter.

Opening hearts and homes to foster children is an act of sacrificial love that brings immeasurable joy and blessings not only to the children but also to foster families, Taylor added. “The rewards of witnessing a child flourish and grow in a safe and loving environment far outweigh the temporary inconveniences and challenges that may arise.”

A mother embraces her foster child, partnered with her through HFS.

The foster system

Navigating the system is a complex undertaking, Bardales said, but HFS has been with them each step of the way with support and care, and the family has come a long way. She hopes, eventually, to adopt the boys.

“When they walked into our home, they didn’t know how to hug, or hold hands, not even with each other,” she recalled. “Now, we say, group hug. Luis and I have shown them what love and family is and what it is supposed to be like. There’s a bond. We are family.”

So is HFS, she added, because it’s available to assist with bumps in the road, and unexpected challenges that arise. “HFS is a tight-knit agency. They are with you every step of the way. It’s truly about giving the children and the families the services they need to be successful.”

Criteria for becoming foster parents includes: the willingness to take the parenting training; no felony or violent crime convictions; adequate space for the children; flexibility to help get them to school, doctor visits, court, and other appointments; training in CPR and First Aid; a safe home; and willingness to be there for the children unconditionally.

The agency hosts free monthly Zoom orientations. Out-of-pocket expenses to become approved as an HFS foster parent are reimbursed by the agency. Foster parents receive a tax-free stipend to support the child in care. All foster youth also come with Medi-Cal insurance, which pays for medical, dental and counseling needs.

To learn more about foster parenting, contact info@hfs.org or call 213.202.3900.

“Our faith teaches us that we are all part of God’s family, bound together by his grace and mercy,” Taylor said in the appeal letter. “Through foster care, we have the extraordinary opportunity to extend this familial love to children who may have never experienced the warmth and security of a loving home.”

The best Christmas present of all, says Bardales, is the boys themselves. Both are doing well in school, have made friends and “they’re part of our community. Our neighborhood is very close-knit. They’ve traveled with us to see extended family. And they know they belong.”