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Around The Valley

Churches, Synagogues Step in to Aid Abused, Neglected Youth

March 30, 1995|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meeting somebody for the first time is a lot like arriving late to a theater, after the movie has already started.

In the darkness the latecomer stumbles toward an empty seat--stepping on a few toes along the way--then watches curiously, trying to figure out the plot and the players.

Thankfully, there's one huge difference between what happens on the big screen, and what happens in the theater of life: the movie ending is static, real lives can be changed.

Out here, where there are no neatly scripted scenes, we can do more than sit and watch--especially where children are concerned. Small acts of caring can sometimes alter the plot of an entire life--regardless of what has already happened.

That's what the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council is doing in its work with abused and neglected children--children whose beginnings in life have been anything but beautiful.

These children have been beaten, raped, molested. They have gone without food and proper clothes and have been left to fend for themselves. They have lived lives filled with fear and uncertainty.

Stepping onto this stage is not easy. Child abuse usually takes place behind a thick curtain of secrecy and even when social workers are helping, privacy laws prevent them from talking about specific cases--even to others who might be able to assist.

So the Interfaith Council pairs social workers who work with abused children with churches and synagogues in the Valley through its "Adopt-A-Child Abuse Caseworker Program."

Through the social workers, the congregations provide children with things that can help them make a fresh start.

"It helps the families and it helps the congregation become more aware of child abuse," said Brenda Trunzo, coordinator of the program. Like the social workers in the program, Trunzo knows that child abuse happens in every level of society, that no race or community or socioeconomic class is exempt.

But because of red tape and ever-dwindling governmental resources, social workers can have a hard time getting children and their families the kind of help they need.

That's where the congregations come in.

Sometimes the things the congregations donate are necessities such as beds or refrigerators. Sometimes they are the fulfillment of a child's desires--music lessons, for example. Other times it comes down to a matter of dignity, such as substituting a real suitcase for a plastic garbage bag.

Sometimes the lack of simple necessities increases the kind of stress that in turn can lead to abuse, said Mary Noroski a social worker for the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services.

"When we reduce the stress, in effect we're helping to reduce abuse," Noroski said.

What does all this cost the churches?

Sometimes the items congregations donate are new. Mostly though, they are used but in good shape.

"It's like recycling," said Noroski, who is paired with First Presbyterian Church of Encino. "It's taking what we already have and sharing."

Dede Kuper, another county social worker, specializes in teen-agers who, because of abuse and neglect, will never return to their families. They live in foster homes and group homes, and constant moving is a part of their existence.

"A lot of these teen-agers, when they're moving from one placement to another, they're moving with their clothes in big green garbage bags," Kuper said.

A garbage bag fits easily into a car, and is an inexpensive way to travel--but it does little for a child's sense of worth. The symbolism is inescapable, even to a young mind.

Kuper has asked for and received suitcases for children she works with, as well as toiletry items, clothes and cameras for graduation.

"These children need to be nurtured in many ways and this is one part of it," Kuper said.

There was one teen-ager who had always wanted to study music--so a church member arranged for her to receive free guitar lessons.

Two teen-age boys who had been physically abused needed jackets and school clothes, so members of another church helped. And a teen-age girl made a simple request: She needed bras.

Then there are the cases of a baby, whom we'll call Maria, and a little girl, whom we'll call Heidi.

Last year, 3-year-old Heidi watched her mother die of an overdose of cocaine. Afterward, she went to live with her grandmother, but the grandmother did not have a bed for Heidi. So the Valley Interfaith Council supplied one from its warehouse, which is stocked with donations from congregations.

And when Debbie Ellis, a member of Northridge United Methodist Church, learned through Kuper that Heidi loved the movie "Aladdin," the church gave the girl a set of Aladdin linens--sheets, a blanket and a comforter.

"Everything the social worker asked for they got," the girl's grandmother said. "(Heidi) was very excited."

In another part of the Valley, a foster family is waiting for 2-week-old Maria to arrive. Maria was born in prison this month to a woman who smoked crack while pregnant. Maria's mother gave her more than life--she also gave Maria syphilis and exposed her to drugs in uterus.

*

When she is released from the hospital, Maria will be cared for by a great-aunt. But the woman already cares for three children born to other, drug-addicted relatives, and had none of the things babies require, and no money to pay for them.

Kuper put the word out to several congregations, and the great- aunt got exactly what she needed: a crib, a high chair, a car seat and clothes.

"We didn't have anything," she said. "I was so happy."

There is little the woman can say to explain the actions of her relatives, but as one of her great-nephews crawled into her lap, her position on him and his cousins was clear.

"The children," she said, "they're innocent."

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