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A Devout Helping Hand

A Christian Group Makes a Heartfelt Attempt to Give Some Children, Caught in County's Overburdened Foster Care System, Another Chance


By all rights, it should be a sunny morning in mid-June; instead, it is dark and drizzly. Upstairs, inside the red-brick walls of MacLaren Children's Center, Los Angeles County's emergency shelter in El Monte, a voice is heard working the phones, checking the usual group homes for openings. "Full house, huh? OK. . . . Hi. Just fine. Any openings? You still taking children 14 to 17? OK. Thanks."

Oblivious to the worker, two women sit at a table nearby thumbing through the sad files of boys and girls whose parents had beaten them or sexually abused them or abandoned them, whose foster parents couldn't cope, who have run away or been thrown out of group homes again and again.

Phyllis Willis, a coordinator of a new religion-based grass roots program, and Grace Peters, a Christian foster parent, are searching among the hardest-to-place children in the county. They're trying to offer one of the few things these kids haven't yet experienced--an unconditional commitment.

Willis has already eliminated the fire-setters, the chronic runaways and most of the sexual predators. The rest of the children might be semi-schooled, combative, depressed, provocative, profane or disturbingly charming. Peters has only a few questions about the girl she is about to meet. Who molested her? How did she get pregnant this time? What about this incident with the knife under the pillow?

If the county approves the placement and if, like all the rest, the girl agrees, she will become the 11th child since November to leave MacLaren through Home Connection, one of the nation's first attempts to use religious organizations to provide homes and "wraparound" community services for the most troubled children in the system.

African American churches have taken the lead in the experimental program, which has signed up 200 potential foster parents through dozens of local churches. Several Latino Catholic parishes are also involved. Recruited through an unofficial network of friends and contacts, the parents are trained like other foster parents and are supervised by county social workers. But they also receive ongoing counseling from a county psychiatrist and additional support, such as respite care and crisis counseling, by a still-evolving team of paid workers and volunteers, coordinated by Willis. Unlike the shelter or a group home, Home Connection also taps into its network for one-on-one guidance and family support for kids as long as they want it.

While the program affects only a tiny sliver of the 70,000 children in the Los Angeles County system, it signals the type of shift to community that watchdogs and philanthropists say is essential to make overburdened child welfare institutions work for abused children separated from their parents. Home Connection targets MacLaren because it has become the catch basin for hundreds of older children whose families could not be patched up and who were never adopted. There are an estimated 300 children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, currently growing up in a revolving door between the shelter and group homes, two institutions recently condemned for substandard care in a grand jury report and a private study.

The mission exudes a sense of urgency: When the children turn 18, the county's obligation tapers off. Without a safety net, they are expected to drift to the streets, perhaps into hospitals or jails.

"We're down to the absolute hardest issue. What do you do with these kids?" asks Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, a national advocacy organization for children in out-of-home care. The group has been working on reform efforts in Los Angeles County after settling a lawsuit against the county for failing to monitor the children in its care.

Last fall, Shauffer proposed that Los Angeles County partner with religious groups, the last bastions of community in some devastated urban areas, to provide comprehensive services. Parents never came through for these children; neither have secular civil servants nor hourly shift workers who staff group homes and treatment facilities.

"It may take a belief in something higher than yourself to go through this experience with these kids," Shauffer says.

Without a model, these pioneers are inventing the program as they go, and questions remain about how churches and governments can work together. Will the children be coerced into religious practices? Will the county's safeguards remain intact? And what help will the faithful need to deliver what they promise?

No one doubts the task is daunting. Among the children who have been placed into Home Connection foster families, one girl with a history of prostitution has run off with a man arrested for pimping, another has been relocated to a respite home, and one boy is back at MacLaren.

"We don't tell them it will be easy," Willis says. "We tell them it will be worth it."

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