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`Christmas Box’ to shelter the abused

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They are easy to overlook because they can't vote, can't drive, can't work and sometimes they can't talk. They are also the most vulnerable victims of violent and uncaring families.

Abused and neglected children in Salt Lake County have nowhere to go while they wait for a foster home. Sometimes that placement is made so quickly the child doesn't fit into the new environment, and what was to be a sanctuary becomes another nightmare.But a local author, his father and county officials hope to change the situation by building a shelter for abused and neglected children.

Richard Paul Evans, author of "The Christmas Box," and his father are spearheading a drive to build what will be known as the Christmas Box House by Dec. 6, 1998 - which is Angel Day as designated by Gov. Mike Leavitt.

"The idea came from the University of Utah Graduate School of Social Work," Richard Evans said. "We were having discussions about what the children of Utah need."

Evans' Christmas Box Foundation, which his father, David, runs, donates money to the school's social work program to fund projects, research and internships. A graduate of the U.'s program himself, David Evans will oversee construction of the project, which will save them hundreds of thousands of dollars, Richard Evans said.

The pair also hopes local companies will donate material and money to the construction of the house.

Pat Burkeman, director of the county's Division of Youth Services, said the shelter is badly needed.

"There isn't time to do a thorough assessment," she said, noting battered children are now brought to an office building until a temporary home is found.

Burkeman hopes the Christmas Box House, which will include medical and psychological assessment areas, will mean children will be better matched from the beginning.

"Then the children wouldn't have to be moved so much," she said.

She isn't surprised the Evans family is interested in building the shelter because they're "very interested in children."

Evans' book, "The Christmas Box," was released locally in 1993 and then nationally by Simon and Schuster in 1995. It became a No. 1 best seller. The story centers on a young family living with a widow whose only child died years before.

Evans said children are his foundation's priority, but it also donates money to the Legal Aid Society, battered women and many other local charities.

He said it was the dean of social work who suggested naming the shelter after the book. The reason, he said, was that children love Christmas - and what better way to make them forget their troubles than by having Christmas year-round?

Evans said they plan to put a decorated tree in the lobby and have a box of wrapped gifts that each child can chose from when he or she comes to the shelter.

"We thought it would take away some of the trauma," Evans said. "We're going to build it from the children's eyes."

The foundation has raised about $400,000. The Salt Lake County Commission recently agreed to deed more than an acre of property to the foundation for a shelter location.

Commission Chairwoman Mary Callaghan called the effort a perfect example of private enterprise - citizens and government teaming up to solve a problem.

Evans said he needs to raise almost $1 million. All of the money must be collected before construction can begin. He said the property donation will help secure other donations more quickly.

Their goal is to raise the money by Dec. 6, and then finish the shelter by Dec. 6, 1998.

With about 1,200 children a year taken into protective custody by the Division of Youth Services, Burkeman said, it will come none too soon.