In the struggle to restore a family or help rebuild the self-esteem of an abused or neglected child, some of the most important tools are some of the simplest: sports equipment, a prom dress or maybe guitar lessons, said Evelyn Syvertsen, deputy regional administrator for the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services.
"They need to feel valued," Syvertsen said. "They need to feel special."
Syvertsen's department has 125 social workers in the San Fernando Valley, each with a caseload of up to 50 children-maybe 4,000 throughout the Valley at any one time. That gives them little chance of showing individual children that they are cherished.
But, for the past two years, Syvertsen's social workers have had help from the "Adopt-a-Child-Abuse-Caseworker" program, a joint effort among the social services department, the San Fernando Child Abuse Council and the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council.
Under the program, congregations from churches and synagogues throughout the Valley help with a specific social worker's caseload. Through a liaison, different congregations learn the needs of a specific abused or neglected child and try to fill them.
"We knew in order to succeed we needed the support of religious groups in the community," said Abbey Klein, president of the San Fernando Child Abuse Council.
The program gives congregations a chance to put into action some of the social justice lessons they may learn from religious teachings, she said.
Sometimes an effort may be geared more toward building self-esteem.
For instance, a new prom dress might ensure that a teen-age girl does not feel left out while new equipment might allow a child to participate in sports.
But basic needs, such as a bed and clothing, can mean the difference between removing a child from a home deemed unlivable and keeping a family together, Syvertsen said. "And, we've been able to return some children home sooner," she said.
"Before this program, they had to go out and get these things on their own," Syvertsen said of social workers. Now, social workers can even get help in getting children birthday presents.
"There's not going to be a happy ending to all the stories," said Brenda Trunzo, who started as a liaison in March with her own congregation at Mission Hills Christian Church. Since November, she has been coordinating the entire program.
But she has seen a few good endings, such as the one involving a 4-year-old girl who watched her mother die of a drug overdose.
Living with her grandmother, the girl needed a bed, and a congregation was also able to get her Aladdin bedsheets when they heard that she was a fan of the story. Her grandmother appreciated the help.
"She was so grateful," Trunzo said. "She didn't know someone else would take the time to help."
According to Syvertsen, the program has been so successful in helping the children and families that the Department of Children's Services is now trying to expand it throughout the county.
There are 13 Valley congregations and service groups participating in the program, Trunzo said.
"I'm hoping to see that doubled by the time the year is out," she said.
Congregations or other groups that want to join the Adopt-a-Child-Abuse-Caseworker can call Trunzo at (818) 718-4064.
Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys needs volunteers to help patients register and fill out admissions forms.
The hospital also need volunteers to visit patients and help make them more comfortable.
Those interested should call Anne Fastiggi, the volunteer director, at (818) 902-2932.