CHILDREN are our most precious resource. Politicians say it, business people say it, educators say it. All America says it. But do we mean it? ``No civilized society would treat its children like we treat ours and then say children are our best resource,'' says Ira Schwartz of the Center for Youth Policy at the University of Michigan.

A majority of children in state care are poor or minorities, he says. ``If most of the kids in the system were middle-class kids, we'd not have a child-welfare system teetering on the brink of collapse. We'd not have kids being put in foster homes where they are abused or in detention centers that are just awful.''

For more than a century, America has debated how to treat its children in need. For much of that time, the nation warehoused them in large institutions. Reformers then worked to maintain children in the community, as in the foster-care system.

In more recent years, child-advocacy groups have argued that kids should receive optimum care from the state - the same quality of services that concerned parents would provide for their child.

In efforts to identify the best programs for kids and their families, the federal government, the states, and several private foundations all have their irons in the research fire. Although many programs are promising, they can be found in just a few sites across the United States.

Meanwhile, it is painfully evident that there's not a lot of money available - either from the deficit-ridden federal government or from financially strapped states - to expand them nationwide now or in the foreseeable future.

What hope, then, exists for changing the system of state care for children? The answer, say many experts in the field, rests with citizens themselves.

``We should utilize the vast numbers of volunteers and the community,'' says juvenile-court judge Leonard P. Edwards of Santa Clara County, Calif. ``It's too expensive to bring in whole new armies of [professional] social workers and probation officers.''

In some cases, citizens have had to fight to be heard - and the biggest obstacle has often been the system itself. But where citizen oversight of the system is diligent, the children benefit.

LAURA GONCE of Portland, Ore., is a special friend to Charlotte and Andre. They met at the Girls' Emancipation Program (GEP) at the YWCA, where Ms. Gonce is a volunteer and Charlotte was a resident.

Charlotte (not her real name) had been in and out of foster care since she was 12, and her son, Andre, became a foster child at birth. After graduating from the GEP program last December, Charlotte felt ready to be on her own - and the court freed her from state care. Now 18, the teen mom has regained custody of Andre, holds a job, and is no longer on any type of public assistance.

But she still gets a helping hand from ``coach'' Gonce. Gonce spends three or four hours a week with mother and son. They go to the park, out for Mexican food, or shopping. She has helped Charlotte find furniture for her apartment and baby things for Andre.

Gonce says Charlotte used to be a lonely and depressed girl who refused to come out of her room. ``Now she's active, and she's taking more and more control of her life,'' Gonce says. ``She feels less and less overwhelmed. She's starting to dream.''

Across the US, citizens who care have found many ways to help children in the system. They donate what they can - whether an hour a week or several hours a day. Any one American can make a difference in a child's life, as the following volunteers attest.

Mac of Paso Robles, Calif., hosts an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting each Thursday for young offenders at a nearby California Youth Authority institution. At one meeting in July, tough kids - unaccustomed to showing any emotions at all - are so moved by the discussion that their stony fa,cades begin to crumble. Some cry for the first time since they were in grade school.

Tammy Caston of New Orleans is a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA worker. The court assigned her to lobby the child welfare system on behalf of a little girl who had been severely physically abused by her mother and sexually abused by her stepfather. She devoted her energies to the child in a way a social worker with 49 other cases never could. Ms. Caston, a word processor for a law firm, worked with police detectives on the case, located the child's father in Florida, and even traveled to Pensacola to inspect the father's home and criminal record. When she reports to the judge, her recommendation on the child's future is likely to carry a lot of weight.

Lea Fischbach of Louisville, Ky., served on the Foster Care Review Board, on the state and local levels. These boards review official records - and have found children who have been ``lost'' in the system for years. Sometimes, it can be a battle to get information on the kids, she says.

Although Kentucky's Department of Social Services is on record in favor of review boards, Mrs. Fischbach says that ``two-thirds of the people who have to send files to us wish we weren't here.''

Thea Burke of Portland, Ore., is a shelter parent for runaways. After her own five children left the nest, Mrs. Burke says, she wanted to open her home to desperate youngsters. She shelters one or two children at a time, while a counselor from a local runaway program sorts out the kids' long-term options. She provides a bed, meals, and a much-needed hot shower.

Burke, whose own children expressed their reservations about her volunteer work, says she knows from experience that not all kids grow up in nice homes with nice families.

Thrown out of the house by her mother when she was 13, Burke says, the state put her in an industrial school for girls. ``The system didn't really protect kids,'' she remembers. ``It listened to the parents, but never to the kids.''

Burke, a laboratory technician at a local hospital, says people need to be more willing to help others - especially children. ``Our country is going to be lost if we keep losing these kids at this rate,'' she says. ``They are our future, and here they are into prostitution and drugs, living on the streets. And we're just losing them.''

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