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

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.

"We all agreed that we'd like to do this," said daughter Shelly Winegar, who was 17 when her parents told the family that they wanted to bring in victimized children. "We all had to learn how to take care of babies."

Homes that qualify are licensed for certain age groups of either boys or girls. Shelter care parents attend seminars and must renew their license each year. County workers regularly visit homes. Still, there have been three children killed in shelter care homes in the last six years, county officials say.

In 1986, an 18-month-old boy was beaten to death in a Pomona shelter care home. In 1982, a 21-month-old girl was sodomized and choked to death in another Pomona home.

"There is nothing worse than taking a child out of his own home to some place that is just as bad or worse," said Pearl Pace, a children's services official. "We try very hard to protect these children. And we have so many good families out there."

The county is always seeking families to provide shelter care. At various times the children's services department concentrates on enlisting families from specific ethnic groups. Right now, there is a shortage of Oriental families.

The Luna Home

County officials say they consider the Luna home one of the best. Tom and Bea have a reputation for being good with difficult children. Their house is known for being large and clean.

Despite the backyard and pool, the house looks in some ways like a dormitory. There are a large dining table and two refrigerators. Sturdy furniture in the living room shows signs of heavy use. The place can be loud, with many people moving about.

"People call us the 'Looney Lunas,' " Bea said.

Harley and Linda Rust's house is, by contrast, sedate. It is a new home with elegant furnishings, thick carpeting and knickknacks placed all about--amenities that probably wouldn't survive at the Lunas'.

"I could never do that," Linda Rust said when told that the Lunas keep six girls at a time.

The Rusts are quiet people who keep only one baby, and sometimes take a few weeks' break. Harley never gets up for late-night feedings, but his job as a fireman allows him to help Linda on days off.

"The best part is when you get the kids who never got any attention," Harley, 49, said. "You play with them for a while, and when they understand that you're there to give them love, they really respond."

Linda tells the story of having a boy brought to them on Christmas Eve. She and her husband called friends and relatives in search of a few presents to give him the next morning. They finally found a Thrifty drug store that was open until midnight.

But the boy did not know what to do with the presents. He had never been given any.

The Lunas tell similar stories. They have had teen-age girls who had never been to a movie or the beach. With so many girls passing through, they throw one or two birthday parties each month. This Christmas, they had 37 people at the house--most were girls who had once stayed with them.

The Lunas said that their son and daughter at times were jealous of the attention they paid to shelter care children.

"Now they understand that there's enough love to go around," Tom Luna said. "They understand that you can't keep it all in the immediate family. There are a lot of people out there who need help."

After anger and jealousy and the commotion have dissipated, an inevitable truth remains: The children must leave. The Rusts have kept one girl who came to them. The Winegars have adopted three. But most go.

"My last one was here for 13 or 14 months," Diane Winegar said. "He went to a perfect home. Perfect parents. But it was still awful for my family."

Separation can be just as difficult for the children.

"This is like my own home because they treat me like their own," said an 18-year-old girl who has been with the Lunas for a year. "I get attached easy. When I have to leave, I'll feel sad."

There is a wall full of photographs in the Lunas' living room. Their son in his Navy uniform. Their high school-aged daughter. And 20 or so girls who have stayed with them. A few write, and a few still visit, Bea says.

"We were the first people who wouldn't give up on them."

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