Worried about the large number of Latino children taken away from parents and placed in California foster care, a host of state politicians Friday took over a church hall once occupied by farmworker leader Cesar Chavez to hear answers to the problem.
And they got an earful from locals calling for solutions ranging from free college tuition for foster care students to hiring more bilingual social workers and giving counties enough money and flexibility to fix the problem.
But among the many speakers, one stood out for his personal voyage through the child welfare system.
"If I had gotten into the system earlier, my life would have been a lot easier," Carlos Ferreyda said. "The problem is the foster care system doesn't fit the need."
Ferreyda's experience echoed some of the complaints raised at the McDonnell Hall at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in East San Jose.
The hearing was the first held by Assemblyman Jim Beall, a Democrat who heads a special committee on foster care. His mission, he said, was to solve "a crisis that demands new solutions."
According to UC Berkeley, which compiles foster care data for the state, Latino children made up 64.1 percent of Santa Clara County's foster care caseload in October 2011. By comparison, Latino children made up 46.8 percent of the state's caseload overall, the highest share for any ethnic or racial group.
Now 19 and studying international business at San Jose State
In soft and measured words, he spoke about coming over the border illegally at age 7 to join his mother in San Jose. Her death a few years later threw Ferreyda and his younger sister into a state of homelessness, where they were shuttled between relatives and friends, some of whom were alcoholics or drug addicts. Finally, he said, social workers placed him in foster care when he was 17.
"I had good social workers," he said, "but I feel they didn't have enough time for me."
His life improved again when he joined an organization at San Jose State that helps foster care students with counseling and financial aid.
Several speakers on reforming the system implored Beall's committee to improve outreach to Latino immigrant families and the recruitment of Spanish-speaking social workers and Latino foster parents -- efforts that might have helped get Ferreyda into foster care earlier.
Claudia Mendez, a former foster child and member of the California Youth Commission on Foster Youth, said immigrant parents typically "don't know they can receive help" before their children are taken away from them.
Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farmworkers Union with Chavez in the 1960s, advocated for more parenting classes for immigrant families.
Bill Aragon, who reviews state child welfare systems for the federal government, said Texas does a good job of recruiting Latino foster parents by enlisting the help of local Latino community groups, whose involvement he described as crucial for reforming failing foster care programs. Aragon caught the audience's attention when he said Kentucky offers free college education and extended health benefits to foster children pursuing degrees.
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith described the state and federal approach to child welfare as a patchwork of disconnected programs run by agencies that don't communicate with each other. He suggested that the state provide funding in the form of flexible block grants that would allow counties "to figure out what works for them."
Beall said he was pleased by the turnout and ideas. "We're going to get an action plan out of this."
Mercury News Staff Writer Karen de Sa contributed to this report. Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.