Thirty thousand children in Los Angeles County can't stay in their homes because Dad has a fierce coke habit or Mom sometimes disappears for days.
They've become foster children, and one of them may be the 7-year-old boy in your son's class who is a nut for airplanes or the teenager who tore your ticket at the theater last Saturday.
State confidentiality laws keep most of us from knowing who they are. By preventing schoolmates or strangers from learning the details of parental screw-ups, the laws can ease the shame and humiliation these knockabout kids already feel. But the children involved are already lonely and scared, and the privacy bubble the law creates renders them all but invisible -- a situation that can make them feel even worse.
You can let these children know that someone notices them, someone cares. Eight local public and private child welfare agencies have dedicated this week to highlighting how county residents -- who are, after all, the taxpaying parents of last resort for these kids -- can make a difference.
Here are six ways to become involved, ranging from lifelong commitment to spending a few hours helping out:
* Help celebrate a foster child's birthday, because sometimes no one else will remember. To donate an unwrapped gift for a child of any age, contact the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles at (323) 980-1700.
* Tutor or donate. The county pays for the basics like Cheerios and new jeans. But foster children often miss the things that other kids take for granted, like a bicycle or help with their homework. Contact the Children's Law Center at (323) 980-1700.
* Help a foster child in court. Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, escort children when they appear in court, soothing their fears and speaking when they're too shy. CASAs also visit children monthly to make sure they get the help that a judge ordered for them. To volunteer, contact the child advocate's office at (323) 526-6666 or www.home.earthlink.net/~casala1.
* Mentor a teenager. Many 18-year-olds emancipated from foster care and facing life on their own want and need the friendship and steady hand of a successful adult. To volunteer, contact Connie Rex at Bridges to the Future, (626) 858-1572.
* Become a foster parent. Training, support and financial help are available for those righteous residents who open their doors to children whose parents can't or won't care for them. Reach the county's Department of Children and Family Services at (888) 811-1121 or on the Web at dcfs.co.la.ca.us.
* Consider adopting a child. You don't have to be wealthy or married to give a foster child a permanent, loving home. Contact the Department of Children and Family Services at (888) 811-1121 or dcfs.co.la.ca.us.
You can change the life of a foster child -- and maybe your own as well.