Sunday, March 25, 2007

Glamour Gowns for teens in foster care

Help teen girls in foster care feel special
Sevanian, Dianna. The Signal, March 24, 2007.

Certainly in this valley there are homes with new or gently worn prom dresses or bridesmaid gowns collecting dust in the closets.

Surely in this town there are teenage girls and women with more evening handbags, wraps and fancy costume jewelry than they actually require.

Undoubtedly, there are generous people here who are willing to donate some of these items to high school girls who need them - girls in the Los Angeles County foster care system who want to attend their proms but lack the proper essentials to do so.

Kids in foster care - generally there due to their parent's severe abuse, neglect or abandonment - miss out on much in early life that many of our more "fortunate" adolescents may take for granted, like having responsible parents there to love and protect you. Or having a "family roof" over your head at night when you go to sleep.

Or, if a girl, having the luxury of shopping for a prom dress aside a caring, functional mother.

If you would like to help those hurting girls, a superb opportunity awaits you...

"Glamour Gowns," an annual event for girls in foster care, will be held April 21 and 22 at the Convention Center in Los Angeles. There, more than 600 high school girls currently in L.A. County's foster system will receive free prom gowns, along with many pretty accessories to complete their look.

All of this is done thanks to donations from big-hearted individuals and companies that wish to uplift the girls' spirits and grant them prom memories to cherish. Big thanks also go to celebrity participants, Kappa Alpha Theta, and other event volunteers who will help the girls with their clothing selections.

In its sixth year, Glamour Gowns is sponsored by CASA of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that provides advocacy, hope and better futures for kids who find themselves in our heavily overburdened, overworked and overly bureaucratic child welfare system.

While the acronym CASA stands for "Court Appointed Special Advocate," the term "casa" - Spanish for "home" - is certainly appropriate as the safe haven its name implies.

Each month, about 800 frightened and worried children are plucked from their perilous homes and brought into the LA. County's Dependency Court (the foster care system). These youngsters are of all ages, races and ethnicities.

Often, the most stable presence in their lives is their CASA volunteer - each advocate appointed by judges to better help the magistrates make crucial decisions about that child's life, including where they'll live, attend school, whom they may see, and what health care, therapy and educational services should be availed.

CASA volunteers maintain regular visits with the children, getting to know them as individuals, not just cases. Among volunteer duties: investigating and reporting the child's circumstances to the court; facilitating delivery of court-ordered services for the child; monitoring compliance with other orders of the court; and advocating in court and the community for the best interests of the child.

Screened, unpaid and dedicated CASA volunteers make a huge difference in these young lives, one child at a time, helping approximately 500 in L.A. County per year. Typically, CASA volunteers are assigned to kids with the greatest challenges, such as those with learning or physical disabilities, or severe emotional or mental problems.

It was in 1977 that Judge David Soukup of Seattle saw an alarming rise in the number of child abuse and neglect cases appearing before his court, and felt he was not getting adequate information for determining the best placement for every child's circumstances. From that concern, CASA began. There are now more than 900 programs in all 50 states with more than 52,000 volunteers serving more than 206,000 children.

Presently, CASA of Los Angeles is actively recruiting, screening and training volunteers to become advocates on behalf of foster children. Perhaps you can become part of that mission. Should fundraising be your forte, maybe you'll want to join Friends of CASA, volunteers who strive to expand resources for CASA support.

For Santa Clarita Valley resident Peggy Edwards, a Friends of CASA supporter, helping children in foster care rates high among her humanistic passions. (Her interests also include Zonta, homeless health care and emergency management planning.)

Through her CASA efforts, Edwards tries to lessen the damaging effects of foster care placement.

"Taking a child out of a toxic home environment is not the end of the line for the child's tribulations, as many serious problems can come into play following that separation," she explained.

This is true, for unfortunately, many foster kids are marched from one foster home to the other - sometimes channeling their increasing anger, depression and frustration along the way into unhealthy behaviors (and sometimes, unlawful actions).

They desperately need a wise, guiding adult to help them.

"For those kids lucky enough to have a CASA, that highly trained volunteer takes the time to get to know the child and to find out what the best placement would be," Edwards said.

Studies show that by giving foster kids caring advocates and getting them secure home placements, they stand better chances at realizing more positive futures, with less chance for delinquency and running afoul with the law.

Foster-related problems don't end with adulthood, however.

"Quite often an emancipated youth loses his or her home on their 18th birthday, and foster care payments run out. That's a whole other issue," she added.

A "whole other issue" - yes. Of those children who emancipate from foster care without realizing a stable, permanent family: 60 percent of the girls have babies within four years; 50 percent do not complete high school; 45 percent are unemployed; 30 percent go on welfare between the ages of 18 and 34; 26 percent spend time in jail or prison; and 25 percent become homeless.

Studies also show that annual costs of abuse and neglect to our society are overwhelming: about $25 billion in direct costs (hospitalization, mental health and police services), compounded by $95 billion for indirect costs such as juvenile delinquency, adult criminality and lost productivity to society.

Amid these disturbing facts, Edwards has an encouraging message: Several few ago there were 50,000 children in L.A.'s foster care. That number, she said, has decreased to about 30,000, "thanks to the efforts of people in all parts of the system, including Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)."

Edwards said she is looking forward to being a "personal shopper" at Glamour Gowns, assisting girls in gown selections.

It's a volunteer role she treasures, and for two important reasons.

"This is about helping teenage girls having a special prom night, a wonderful experience, and feeling absolutely beautiful in their gorgeous gowns," she said. "It's also about being lucky enough to have been born into a terrific family with parents who loved and nurtured us and made sure that we had self-confidence and self-esteem - and, who modeled that it is expected that if you can, you give back and help others."

If you'd like to "give back" and become a candle in the dark for youngsters in foster care, check out CASA at

While you're at it, why not check out what's inside your closets and drawers? My guess is, you may find a fantastic prom ensemble waiting there, ready to be donated to a young lady in need.

Donations for Glamour Gowns are due by April 9. All items should be clean and in excellent condition. For information about donation pickups contact Peggy Edwards at Diana Sevanian lives in Stevenson Ranch. Her column reflects her own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal.