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'I'm going home and start life clean.' : Institution Helps Youths Find the Way

March 07, 1985|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

Partying all night and sleeping through the following morning's wake-up alarm, Bill Smith seldom made it to school on time--if at all. He was glad when he was expelled from high school in his sophomore year.

But Bill's freedom was fleeting. When his parents--their patience already stretched to the breaking point by the expulsion and his other behavior problems--discovered early in 1984 that he was shoplifting to support a drug habit; they immediately turned him in to San Bernardino County juvenile authorities.

Bill (a pseudonym) was placed on probation on the condition that he allow the county juvenile department to send him to Boys Republic. No, not to the famed Boys Republic in San Bernardino County, which counted the late screen star Steve McQueen among its alumni. The 17-year-old Bill was sent to the little-known Orange County branch of Boys Republic, tucked away in a converted church in Santa Ana.

"It's been a different experience than I'd been used to," Bill said, reflecting on his 10-month stay at Boys Republic-Orange County during a break from mandatory chores one recent afternoon. "It's been frustrating at times. I've felt like taking off."

Only pride in what he has accomplished and his loyalty to the Boys Republic staff--which made his progress possible--have kept him there, he said.

A Changed Life Style

Today, Bill arises before dawn, goes to school regularly--his grade-point average has gone from F to B--and is holding down his first part-time job.

"I'm going back home and start life clean," said Bill, who is scheduled to be released from Boys Republic-Orange County in a month. Thanks to Boys Republic's twice-monthly family counseling sessions with Bill and his parents, they've learned to communicate with each other and accommodate each other's life styles.

"I've had to compromise with my mom and dad on some things," said Bill, who said he has been amazed at the support his parents have shown him since he entered Boys Republic . "We've reached agreements on things, like where I can smoke and the hours I can stay out."

Bill is one of 20 boys, ages 13 to 18, enrolled in the Orange County branch of the Chino-based Boys Republic. The Santa Ana branch has operated with little fanfare for more than a decade.

"Surprisingly enough, a lot of probation officers don't know there's a Boys Republic facility in Santa Ana," said the branch director, George Chance, during a recent tour of the branch.

"But when they learn of our existence, they'll often refer boys here over the main campus in Chino (which has a larger capacity: 148). We're not like the 'closed' Chino facility, where the boys live and attend school on campus and probably will be returning home at the end of their stay. Here at Santa Ana, we're an 'open' facility, where most of the boys are being prepared for 'emancipation' (from parental support and control) by having them live in a residential setting. We have a minimum of restrictions. The boys attend neighborhood schools, and they have part-time jobs in the community."

Bill and other youths assigned there usually have family problems and poor school records, Chance said.

"Most of our boys generally come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; a number of them come from disrupted homes," he explained during a walk around the compact grounds, where a basketball court and picnic table have been squeezed in for outdoor recreation.

Boys Republic youths have committed offenses that "cover the full range of delinquent activities--auto theft, burglary, vandalism and possession or sale of marijuana," Chance said. "But we don't take kids like first-degree murderers or repeated sex offenders. Occasionally, we'll take a boy who's participated in an isolated sexual assault. We don't take arsonists or boys with severe drug problems. While maybe 98% of our kids here have had experiences with drugs, we don't deal with addicts because they'd be doing all kinds of things to maintain their habit. And we can't take kids who have physical limitations like diabetes or epilepsy."

Rather than taking in the offender with a record of serious crime, Boys Republic deals in runaways, truants and boys convicted of misdemeanors or relatively minor felonies, such as car theft.

"I'm not saying that our boys are head and shoulders above the boys at Chino," said the 30-year-old Chance, who worked at Chino for 2 1/2 years. "It's just that here at Santa Ana we have the kind of boy who can handle going to a public school in the community.

"The reason our boys can handle daily contact with the public, at school or in the neighborhood, is that they have good impulse control that doesn't make them a threat to others--or themselves."

Most Stay One Year

The average stay at Boys Republic-Orange County is one year, but Chance said some probation officers keep boys in the program for as long as three years rather than return them to an unstable family or unsuitable neighborhood environment.

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