A policeman knocks on the front door. Parents solemnly hand over their 4-year-old, who is whisked away in a patrol car. The child is taken to a large county facility where he or she does not see any familiar faces, and the ones the child does see are different at night than the ones during the day.
According to Mary Rotzien, this is what is experienced by more than 400 children younger than 5 years old who are taken into protective custody each month in Los Angeles County. Already the victims of physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, physical neglect or exposure to drugs, these children often believe they have been arrested and taken to jail.
Unfortunately, such an experience plays directly to the emotional vulnerabilities of such children. "An abused child already has an internal sense of guilt," Rotzien said, and assume they have been bad. "They can't reason that the parent is the one with the problem."
This scenario, which Rotzien said she saw many times as an intern at Los Angeles County's MacLaren Children's Center, inspired her to lay the groundwork for Child Shelter Homes: A Rescue Effort, a program designed to provide foster care for children under 5 years who have been picked up by protective services.
A Twofold Problem
The Child SHARE Program addresses a twofold problem that has long vexed child care authorities. Virtually everyone agrees that children in protective custody are best off in the care of dedicated and nurturing foster parents. But there are not enough foster parents to go around. "There is a huge need for high-quality foster parents," said Judith Lau, director of the Children's Bureau, a private organization licensed by the state to certify foster homes.
For children who can't be placed with temporary foster parents, the shelter of last resort is the MacLaren Center, which even county authorities concede is overcrowded.
According to figures compiled by the county's Bureau of Program Resources, 345 children under the age of 5 were taken into protective custody in September, 1985. On Oct. 24, 1985, 61 toddlers were in the facility's nursery, which was built to take care of 13 children. The average nursery population from August 1984 through August 1985 is 65 children.
"We're real excited about it (the Child SHARE Program)," said Jean McIntosh, deputy director of the Bureau of Program Resources. The county is providing assistance to the new program by helping to license and train temporary foster parents and by providing a referral service to match up toddlers with temporary foster parents.
Rotzien's answer to the twin problems of overcrowded public facilities and undersupply of temporary foster parents was to turn to her church. "It's a recruiting of a population that hasn't been tapped," she said.
First to Participate
The Westwood Presbyterian Church is the first to participate in the program, with the first set of foster parents, John and Joyce Purvis of Los Angeles, taking custody of 16-month-old Rhonda (confidentiality prevents disclosing the child's full name) in mid-October.
According to Joyce Purvis, Rhonda arrived with one dress, one toy and a runny nose. Rhonda had been in MacLaren Hall for about a month. She previously lived with her grandmother in an automobile. "There was love there," Joyce Purvis said. "It's a sad story, but not a tragic story."
Purvis said the grandmother has since been able to move to a motel room with a friend, and all parties hope that when the grandmother finds a permanent and suitable place to live, Rhonda will be returned to her. The Purvises were told that they would be Rhonda's foster parents for two to 12 weeks.
"She is learning to talk very fast," Joyce Purvis said. "And she is very curious."
Eased the Frustrations
Rotzien said making the first placement has eased the frustration of dealing with a foster parent licensing process that can be excruciatingly slow. Simply processing the fingerprints of foster parent applicants can take as long as five months, she said.
"Ignorance is bliss," she added. "If we knew how hard it was going to be, we might not have done it."
The Hollywood Presbyterian Church is also planning a Child SHARE Program. Rotzien believes the second SHARE chapter is approximately three months away from making its initial placement. Brian Buchanan, co-director of the program, said he and Rotzien, who is his wife, would like to see the Child SHARE concept spread to other religious denominations.
Lau believes that churches can reach the type of foster parents who are likely to stick with the program. "They can reach people who are motivated to serve," she said.
The Children's Bureau is lending support to the Child SHARE Program by providing training, supervision and counseling and by making a social worker available to interview prospective foster parents.
Potential Foster Parents