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A Successful Alternative to Foster Homes

October 24, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

Richard Lopez smiled self-consciously when asked what brought him last year to Concept 7, the Orange County-based residential treatment program for troubled teen-agers.

"Regular kid problems, I guess," he said, seated on a couch in the office of the Concept 7 group home for boys in Fullerton, a four-bedroom ranch-style house on a quiet residential street.

"My girlfriend got pregnant . . . I was looking for a job, but I couldn't find one because I wasn't really looking. I was getting into drugs pretty heavy, just smoking pot, doing a lot of speed, drinking. . . . I was doing some cocaine."

Lopez, who was wearing blue jeans and a red polo shirt, crossed one leg over the other. Jiggling his foot up and down, he gazed out the window and continued:

"I was living in a foster home at the time, and Social Services said if I wasn't in school or didn't get a job they would take me out of the foster home."

But Lopez, who spent his first 17 years living in a half-dozen different foster homes, just wasn't interested in school.

"I was too much into my music and how I looked, and the way people thought about me--being too cool to care about school," he said.

Fought, Ditched Classes

When he was expelled for fighting and ditching classes two months in a row, Lopez said, the Department of Social Services placed him with Concept 7--one of about a half-dozen residential treatment programs in Orange County offering teens a home-like alternative to Juvenile Hall or county shelters.

Lopez graduated from Concept 7 last July after 13 months in the program, which emphasizes integrating troubled teens back into society and into their families, upgrading their academic deficiencies and teaching them independent living skills.

Now 18, Lopez lives with friends in Alta Loma, works in a factory that makes animal nutrition products and has ambitious plans for his future: He wants to attend a trade school to study art or learn masonry. The slim, dark-haired teen-ager also dreams of becoming a model. "That," he said, flashing a photogenic smile, "would be cool."

He is not, Lopez acknowledged during a recent return visit to the group home, the same person he was when he first arrived at Concept 7.

"I'm a better person for coming here," he said. "I've changed in the way that I do things--handling responsibilities, doing things on my own, asking questions. It got me ready for the outside world and to learn the things to survive."

"If I hadn't come here," he added, "I'd probably be out doing the same old stuff, being with the wrong people. But I'm glad I came here. That stuff gets boring after a while, when you think about it."

Typical of Boys in Program

"I'd say Richard is fairly typical of the type of boy who comes into our program," Ozzie Oswald, supervisor and "father figure" at Concept 7's Fullerton group home for boys, said in a separate interview.

"When Richard came into our program, he was very immature, with little impulse control. He had a real identity problem. He was almost like a chameleon. One week he'd identify with our 'heavy-metal' culture kid, the next week with our Mexican kids. He came in a really pretty sharp kid but had a lot of gaps in his education.

"Richard has just done an extremely good job. He's more mature, much more stable in his assessment of himself. He's got a lot more self-confidence and he's aware of his strengths. He had no trust before. Now he communicates--he's able to express his feelings.

"He just made up his mind he was going to make changes in his life. He sought some help for making them--just coming to the staff and being honest about what his needs are. You can't work with kids--and they won't make any significant changes--unless they're honest with themselves."

Since George and Betty Wakeling opened the first Concept 7 group home in Orange County in 1977, more than 1,100 teen-agers through age 17 have gone through the program.

The majority are placed by the Juvenile Probation Department for such offenses as breaking and entering, burglary, car theft, drug abuse or being chronic runaways. Others, who are the victims of child abuse, molestation or abandonment, are placed by the Department of Social Services. A small percentage are placed privately by their own parents.

Chronic Truant Problem

"They're all labeled as being beyond parental control," said Concept 7 associate director John Lybarger, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor who has a doctorate degree in psychology. "Most of them have a chronic truant problem and are two to three grades below their grade levels.

"They need a place more structured than their home environment but not as structured as jail. That's the alternative we provide."

Concept 7, which is licensed to accommodate 66 residents, has 61 teen-agers living in its four group homes in Orange County, an 18-bed ranch for boys in Apple Valley and an 18-bed ranch for girls and a group home for girls in Hemet.

In the beginning, however, was the Wakeling home.

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