It is Adoption Awareness Month and there is a nationwide shortage of foster families. San Luis Obispo County is feeling the impact and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. Health concerns meant many families stopped taking in foster children.
"I feel like she completes our family," said parent, Chelsea Ruiz.
The Ruiz family was once a family of three. They had one biological son, Windham and wanted a sibling for him. The pair had always wanted to adopt, but thought they would do so later in life. Chelsea was also struggling with infertility so they decided foster-to-adopt was the right decision for them at the time. They signed up to be foster parents and Holland was their first placement. Chelsea and Mario Ruiz took her home from the hospital when she was just 5 days old.
"For me there was no question. Sorry, for me I knew I wanted to adopt, I knew that we wanted a sibling for our child and I knew that we were going to love whoever came into our lives," said Chelsea.
After 6 months of fostering Holland they started the adoption process and after 1 year she became a permanent member of the Ruiz family.
"In our case it ended up being you know, like heaven sent. The fact that this child just fit perfectly into our family," said parent, Mario Ruiz.
"We feel lucky that she fit perfectly, but chances are it could've been any child that came in and fit perfectly," said Mario.
There is a shortage of foster families not only in San Luis Obispo County but across the country.
At times the shortage has been so severe that youth have even had to sleep in beds in the department of social services office overnight.
Jennifer Finocchio of DSS says it is a safe, supervised environment and they try to make the children as comfortable as possible but it is not an ideal situation.
"I'd say our biggest need right now is for homes that can take children on an emergency basis and also homes that are willing to take teenagers," said Department of Social Services Social Worker Supervisor, Jennifer Finocchio.
The pandemic has made matters worse. Many families in San Luis Obispo County decided to not foster anymore due to lack of space or being in high risk groups for COVID-19.
San Luis Obispo County usually has about 130 homes approved to do foster care but right now less than 100 of those homes are active for more than 360 children in foster care.
"The large percentage of our youth in care right now are over the age of 12," said Finocchio.
Amber Gambel was part of that group, placed in foster care when she was 15 years old. She says it took 3 or 4 tries with different families before she found the family that was right for her.
"I was a little rambunctious. I was a teenager I had gone through a lot of trauma I had one through a lot of stuff," said former foster youth, Amber Gambel.
Gambel says as a foster teen she tested the waters and always wondered if she would be kicked out for her behavior, but she says her foster family loved and supported her through the difficult times, eventually adopting her.
"If I didn't have them, I don't know that I would be standing here. Because of that support I was able to go to college and get my bachelor's degree, get my master's degree in social work, come back and work in the field and in the system that I was once placed in," said Gambel.
She credits her success to her adoptive family.
"I just don't know that without that support, this is the person that would be standing in front of you," said Gambel.
"Explore it. Try it. See if it's right for you and your family at this time," said Mario.