A Santa Monica-based social service center is trying to recruit more Westside foster families to keep child abuse victims closer to home.
The Westside Children's Center was founded last year to help deal with a severe shortage of foster homes in the area stretching from Malibu to Inglewood, said Lezlie Johnson, the center's co-founder.
Because there are only about 100 foster families on the Westside, county social workers have been forced to place more than 4,000 Westside children who have been physically or sexually abused, neglected or abandoned in institutions or foster homes as far away as Lancaster and Pomona, Johnson said.
Foster-care professionals said that keeping abused children with foster families in their own communities eases the trauma of separation and makes it easier for their natural parents to visit and, after rehabilitation, to eventually take them home again.
The center has made a little headway in recruiting foster parents. Since July, 30 people have signed up for foster-parent classes offered by the center, housed temporarily in a building leased from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
The center, which received licenses from the county and state last week, plans to place its first foster child Monday.
"A lot of people think that people on the Westside don't care about social problems, and that's not true," said Gaylynn Thomas, program coordinator for the center's foster family service, who has recruited foster parents through churches and items in local newspapers. "They just never realized the severe need for foster homes for infants and toddlers."
Although the foster home shortage is countywide, the problem on the Westside is particularly acute.
About 20% of 26,000 foster children in the county are from the Westside, but only about 2.5% of the county's foster families live in that area, said Sharyn Logan, division chief of countywide services for the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services. The center serves an area bordered by the county line west of Malibu, La Brea Avenue, Imperial Highway and Mulholland Drive, which is also under the jurisdiction of the West Los Angeles office of the County Department of Children's Services.
Johnson, who lives in Brentwood, noticed the problem first-hand while she was a volunteer at MacLaren Hall, the county children's emergency shelter in El Monte.
"MacLaren is a terrific facility for what it is, which is a temporary home for children," said Johnson, a former television commercial producer. "But because there are not enough foster homes, children sometimes end up staying (at MacLaren) for six months to a year."
Thomas said MacLaren Hall is too far away for many Westside parents to visit on a regular basis. The county's juvenile courts require regular visitation before parents can take back their children.
State law gives parents at least 18 months after the child has been placed in a foster home to correct whatever problem caused them to mistreat their children, Johnson said. If the parents fail, the children are put up for adoption, placed under legal guardianship or placed in long-term foster care.
Johnson and center co-founder Carolyn Mayer, a former certified public accountant, met with county officials and foster-care experts for a year to determine ways to improve the foster care services in the area.
"When we started asking questions about our own community, the Westside, we realized how little participation there was out here," said Mayer, a Bel-Air resident.
The two women decided to focus on a specific region, the Westside, and emphasize placement of children 5 or younger. "With foster children, the problem is opposite of what's going on in adoptions," Johnson said. "It's much harder to get foster parents to take babies."
The requirements for becoming a foster parent are simple, said Johnson, who has two foster children. A potential foster parent must be 18 or older with no criminal record. A foster parent also must be healthy, financially and emotionally stable, and have enough room in the home for children.
The center's foster family agency offers an 8- to 10-week training course on the foster-care system and about how to interact with foster children and their natural parents in a way that helps the family get back together, she said.
The center will certify and license those who have met county requirements and will pay foster parents $500 a month per child. The center will receive funding from the county as part of a contract agreement with the county.
When the center is fully operational, it will also offer parenting classes, a day-care program for foster children that encourages parental involvement, and a 20-child residential facility for infants and toddlers, Johnson said.
"Our whole goal is to help the courts make the decision of what is in the best interest of the child as expeditiously as possible," she said.
So far, only the foster-family service is operating, Mayer said. The center is looking for a permanent site and financing to open residential and day-care facilities.
Los Angeles County Children's Services commissioner Helen Kleinberg said she is keeping a close watch on the center as a possible model program for other areas of the city.
"The reason I think the Westside Children's Center is of such interest," she said, "is that it is . . . a community program to care for children who live in the community.
"As it now stands, the county usually has to place (children) not only in a strange household, but in a strange part of the city."
The shortage of foster families, especially ones in the child's community, "may mean the child is in the system so long that if they can't be reunified with their families, they may be so old they can't be adopted," she said.
Logan, of the children's services department, said the Westside Children's Center is innovative because it focuses on reuniting families as quickly as possible.
"Other agencies (usually) specialize in children where there is not much hope of getting them back with their families," Logan said.
Johnson, who is married to movie producer Mark Johnson, has used her show business ties to raise awareness, and money, for the center.
"Those of us who have so much, it's our responsibility to help others," she said.
The center's first fund-raiser was a benefit premiere of "Good Morning, Vietnam" starring Robin Williams, a movie her husband produced. That benefit raised $100,000 in start-up costs for the center.
The center's next fund-raiser, on Dec. 8, will be another benefit premiere, this time featuring the movie "Twins," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito.