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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Lucia Guillen, left, helps Rene Gonzalez hit the pinata at a party at the Utah Foster Foundation's offices Saturday.

All eyes were on the colorful pinata as the children took turns smashing it. Suddenly, in a flurry of movement, cheers erupted as it was ripped apart — candy launching across the room as the children scrambled to collect the pieces.

Parents watching the candy-induced chaos laughed and praised the children as they paraded about with their loot.

To any outsider, the festivities might have appeared to be just another fun community event, and in many ways it was.

However, there is a unique connection that binds these families who hail from a variety of countries in Central and South America — they are all foster parents.

Across the state, Utah has some 2,600 children in foster care — 540 of these children are Latino/Hispanic, according to the Utah Foster Care Foundation.

Federal law mandates that children in foster care should be placed in homes that have similar cultures to their own. Being placed with families that share similar cultural practices helps children feel more at home and makes a huge difference in their adjustment, said Christina LeCluyse, a family recruiter from the Utah Foster Care Foundation.

There is a growing need for more Latino/Hispanic families to be a part of Utah's foster-care program, an issue LeCluyse believes is due to a lack of awareness of the program.

"There is a lot of need in the Salt Lake Valley," LeCluyse said. "In Latin America, foster-care systems don't exist yet — it's kind of a foreign concept."

Families involved in the foster-care program meet regularly to discuss issues and methods of parenting for the children who are victims of abuse and neglect and might have special needs. Saturday's meeting was a celebration of culture. The families shared their unique cultural practices in celebration of the holiday season.

Jose and Ruth Gonzalez became involved in the program two years after moving to Utah from Buenos Aires, Argentina. The couple arrived in Utah seven years ago with one biological son, who is now 12. No longer able to have children, Ruth and Jose decided to become foster parents — a choice they are glad they made.

"It's been a good experience," Jose said. "With each year that passes, we are more and more sure."

They have since adopted three of the children they helped foster and desire to adopt a fourth they currently care for.

"I just love children," Ruth said. "I am so happy we were able to adopt."

According to the Utah Foster Care Foundation, Latino/Hispanic children are over-represented in the foster-care program, and the need for more bilingual families is growing. In order for these children to maintain their cultural identities, more Latino/Hispanic families need to get involved in foster care.

"We'd really love to have more families join the program," Jose said. "Families need to get involved for the well-being of the children."

For more information, or to get involved with the Utah Foster Care Foundation, visit their bilingual Web site at: www.utahfostercare.org.

E-mail: nhale@desnews.com