By Mary O’KEEFE
Although you are young, your life has been as difficult as those who have lived three times as long. Then one night, amidst the chaos of police officers and screaming parents, someone tells you to pack a bag – you are leaving your home.
This is how some children are introduced to the foster care system. Taken from their home in the middle of the night. Confused and scared. Though nothing can make this situation easy, the Lions Club hopes donations of suitcases and backpacks, plus items to put into them, will help these children through this tough transition.
On Saturday, the Crescenta Cañada Lions Club held its annual backpack/suitcase collection drive at the Ralphs parking lot in La Crescenta. In addition to the backpacks and suitcases, club members received donations of toiletries and school supplies. The Lions Clubs throughout the district have been doing this outreach event for several years. Art Rinaman, president of Crescenta Cañada Lions Club, saw that other clubs were involved in the project and thought it would be a perfect way for their club to help children in Los Angeles County.
“The entire district endorsed the project,” he said.
Rinaman added they continue to collect backpacks/suitcases all year long. The club collected 65 bags on Saturday, which is less than last year but still a strong showing.
“I am happy and proud of [the support from] the community,” he said. “We had a lot of support from Holy Redeemer Catholic Church and the Glendale Area Schools Federal Credit Union.”
Oftentimes the children leave their homes without things they need, like toothbrushes or even clothing. They are to grab what they can and without a suitcase are sometimes given plastic garbage bags to put all their things in.
“It can be very traumatic sometimes when they are leaving their homes,” said Neil Zanville, spokesman of Public Affairs Los Angeles County Dept. of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
Children who are taken into the DCFS are first put into the care of a relative. Social workers perform background checks to make certain the relative does not have a criminal past and is suitable to take the children. This takes time and often the children are taken to an office to wait.
“I see kids in the lobby [with a plastic bag],” said Lovette Panthier, supervisor social worker and resource coordinator for DCFS. “I cannot stand seeing children with [their possessions in] a garbage bag.”
Recently Panthier attended training when attendees were given items in a plastic garbage bag.
“We had to walk around all day with a trash bag,” she said, adding the experience made her uncomfortable. She said didn’t want children to feel that way.
In addition to leaving their own home with nothing but a garbage bag filled with possessions, sometimes when children leave their foster homes, the foster parents will also throw everything into a garbage bag.
“It may be the easiest thing to do, but it is not the kindest,” Panthier said.
In total, this July the DCFS expects to receive about 350 backpacks/suitcases from Lions Clubs from throughout L.A. County. The need for more is great, however. As of June, in L.A. County, 19,054 kids were removed form their homes, according to Zanville.
The bags will be used in a variety of ways including as backpacks for school and bags to put personal items in as the children move in and out of foster care. “It’s great,” said Brad Hoffman of DCFS. “A lot of times I am giving [the bags] to the [kids].”
“Kids are getting ready to start back to school and [need] school supplies,” said Panthier.
On Aug. 17, the DCFS will hand out the backpacks filled with supplies to children who are in foster care, waiting for adoption or those being supported through family services.
Panthier added what some people take for granted – new backpacks and school supplies – are great gifts for those in foster care.
“I am so grateful for what the [Lions Club] does,” she said.
The DCFS also shops for kids with the help of Kohl’s department store. The average need is $100 per child for new school clothes.
Anyone who would like to donate backpacks or suitcases can do so by contacting the Crescenta Cañada Lions Club. Call Dee Crum or Art Rinaman at (818) 248-0478 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To make a financial donation, make checks payable to DCFS and mail the donation to DCFS, 20151 Nordhoff St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. A tax-deductible receipt will be sent back to the sender.
The DCFS has a hotline people can call to report concerns about children. In 2012, the agency responded to 90,000 referrals of child neglect, which dealt with 150,000 children. The agency averages about 12,000 to 13,000 calls a month in L.A. County, according to Zanville.
To contact Child Protective Services, call (800) 540-4000. The DCFS is always looking for foster parents. Anyone who would like information can call (800) 811-1121.