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OPEN HOUSE : On a Moment's Notice, Families Agree to Take In Young Strangers on the Battlefront of Foster Care

January 07, 1988|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

Young girls arrive at Tom and Bea Luna's house in the early morning. Some have been beaten or molested. Others have simply been left to fend for themselves.

A social worker has taken them from their homes and to the Luna's residence in Sepulveda, where an extra back bedroom is always filled with visiting girls. Tom and Bea become an instant family for anyone who steps through the door.

"Usually they come in with just the clothes on their back. If they've been raped, all they are wearing is a hospital gown," said Bea, 39. "I try to find the best possible thing about them, like their hair or their eyes. I tell them about that. I stay up all night talking to them."

Each girl will stay for a few weeks or a few months, until a judge decides what to do with her. She may return to her real parents or go to a foster home. A new girl takes her place.

So, life with the Lunas can be cluttered and noisy and hopeful. And it can be sad--a temporary refuge for children who do not know where they will end up. Tom says that, every day for the last five years, somebody has been crying in his house.

This is foster care at the battlefront.

County social workers take abused children into custody 24 hours a day, so these "shelter care homes" remain on call around the clock. A wealthy couple in Encino may suddenly find themselves caring for a baby from the ghetto. A Mexican woman welcomes a battered white girl who looks at her and says, "I don't like Mexicans."

Although the children can be angry and difficult, families often become attached and then must say goodby. "Tears at the front door," one mother calls it. The work pays little--the county gives the family between $8 and $15 a day for each child, barely the cost of food and clothing, families say.

Not many families are willing to do such work--just 65 in the San Fernando Valley. (There are 178 homes countywide). Valley shelter care homes take in an average of two children a night. They may keep a child for only four hours--or for a year.

Harley and Linda Rust specialize in infants. More than a hundred babies have passed through their Canoga Park home during 11 years of continuous 4 a.m. feedings. They also have two children of their own and a soon-to-be-adopted daughter.

Donald and Diane Winegar take the babies of drug-addicted mothers, infants who continually cry and shake and vomit. The Winegars care for up to three babies at a time, along with six of their own children and three adopted toddlers.

"I don't do this because I think it's a great humanitarian thing to do," Diane Winegar, 45, said. "I do it because I like it. I don't want to have babies the natural way anymore, but I want to have babies."

The Lunas have two children of their own and keep finches, parakeets, fish and a cat. They baby-sit a 2-year-old niece each day. And they keep six girls at a time.

"We don't live a humdrum life," said Tom, 40, who owns an upholstery shop. "It's always changing, and I like that. I like to see sad cases get happy."

Each case begins when a worker for the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services receives a report of abuse, neglect or molestation. The call may come from a neighbor, a relative or police. The worker investigates, often accompanied by police officers. If the situation is bad, the child is taken away immediately.

Sometimes the parents fight and scream. Sometimes they do not even protest. The child may be a molested high school student or a small girl with belt marks on her back.

"A little boy about 5 years old has been telling lies for a long time, so mom gets fed up and holds the kid's hand over the burner on the stove," said Nancy Cook, who has been investigating such reports for 10 years. "You go to another house, and it's filthy. The baby is rolling around in feces and broken glass. The mother is strung out on drugs."

Some children don't want to leave home. Others have their bags packed by the time the worker arrives, said Marty Nagel, a children's services supervisor. One 10-year-old said she didn't want to leave her mother, but she was not scared or sad.

"Like when some people die, I don't cry," she said. "I've been to funerals before and everybody's crying, but I don't. I don't know why."

During the day, these children are taken to large foster homes or a county facility such as MacLaren Hall. At night and in the early morning, they are taken to a shelter care home.

"I was scared at first," said one teen-age girl who was taken to the Lunas' home three weeks ago. "But Aunt Bea and Uncle Tom make you feel wanted. They make you feel comfortable."

Shelter care homes are licensed by the county. Any family applying to do the work is interviewed and fingerprinted. Their house is inspected, as are their criminal and financial records. Children in the family are as closely scrutinized as are adults; the work and strain of shelter care affects everyone in the family.

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