Ignoring the dozens of stars, the little kids besieged Donald and Goofy and Pluto.
It was the annual United Friends of the Children's Celebrity Day at MacLaren Children's Center, the county holding facility for children in protective custody. The carnival games, the celebrities, the prizes, the pizza were all aimed at making abused and abandoned children feel special.
A skinny teen-ager watched and waited as Donald Duck hugged the kids and danced. The Duck was very good. The little kids squealed with delight, while the teen-ager looked both cynical and puzzled. Any youngster winding up in this place had a right to both those emotions--but was he cynical enough to spoil the magic for the little ones?
The little kids ran to the games, and the Duck continued his cartoon shuffle.
The teen-ager approached the Duck and gingerly tapped him on the shoulder. The Duck turned. The teen-ager leaned over. And Donald Duck hugged him, too.
That's all the skinny teen-ager had been waiting for. A hug from Donald Duck. Or just a hug.
Sylvester Stallone had his picture taken, over and over, the Polaroid shots getting pressed into anxious hands. He wrote his autograph, over and over, signing the autograph books and papers "From your special friend . . . from a friend who likes you . . . from someone you know is your friend."
The girl showed off her autographs from the red Leatherette books every child had. The first signature was not from the celebrity, but from another MacLaren Hall child: "Dear L. I love you and I am happy to be your friend."
This was a happy day. L wore a homemade sign pinned to her shirt. "Hello," it read. "My name is . . . and you are welcome to MacLaren Hall today."
She proudly went through her autograph book, and it was only when she pushed up her wristband that the deep scars from the burns showed on her wrist.
Celebrity Day, with its stars and softball game, is the highlight of the year-round preSence at the El Monte faCility by the 45-member United Friends of the Children. MacLaren is a stark and cold-looking structure--originally built as an institution for juvenile offenders. Now children rescued from punishing situations are placed here, in an environment that sadly still reflects its origin as a place of punishment. Keys are necessary to enter the residence halls euphemistically called cottages, and if the steel-frame beds with their sagging mattresses and showers with no curtains aren't Oliver Twist, they're surely not the Bobbsey Twins either.
Abused or Neglected
The children here have been removed from their homes for protection. Larry Cory, who heads the Children's Services Division of the county counsel's office, said: "These children have been removed from their parents because they have been sexually abused at home, physically abused at home, or have not received appropriate care. The parental use of drugs or alcohol are many times a factor in these cases. . . . Even with runaways, typically many of them run away because of those same terrible factors."
What greets these children at MacLaren is "the bare necessities," a holding facility, an emergency center.
But instead of the 36-hour emergency stay mandated by law, the kids at "Mac" wind up there, on and off, for months and months, according to Nancy Daly, a longtime volunteer and now chairman of the commission of the 2-year-old Department of Children's Services. There are 5,000 kids counted as passing through MacLaren every year, but each time a child comes through, he or she is counted again. To use the crisp social-work term, there are "repeated failures in placement." So some toddlers as well as some teen-agers can come through the revolving door at MacLaren six or eight or 10 times in a year.
Los Angeles Councilman Joel Wachs, waiting to present a citation at Saturday's party, said that it is "amazing what Nancy Daly and Stacey Winkler have done. They have not only done this," he pointed to the field crowded with stars and happy children. "They have sensitized the county to the plight of these children and they were the major force in starting this whole department."
But Stacey Winkler, in the red sweater and jeans that was the Friends uniform for the day, said that what was important is "the new effort, a real joint venture" between the new Department of Children's Services, the MacLaren staff and the United Friends.
"There is no fault to be placed in any way with what's wrong at MacLaren. This is a system that is overcrowded and a reflection of the times. And the pressures that people live with, day to day. We don't have other places for these kids, so MacLaren becomes a dumping ground--victims of abuse, mentally ill children, children with deep psychiatric problems and street kids. There is so little money and so little priority placed on children by government. . . ."