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Fire Closes Embattled Institute for Autistic Care

April 17, 1986|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

Burglars on Wednesday managed to do what neighbors and critics have tried without success to do for five years: shut down a Northridge live-in center for autistic teen-agers and young adults.

State officials temporarily revoked the operating license of the Behavior Research Institute after determining that a fire set to cover up a burglary Saturday made the four-bedroom Zelzah Avenue house uninhabitable.

Officials ordered six residents who have been taking part in a behavior-modification program at the center returned to their parents or placed in other licensed care centers.

Financing Is Halted

The action immediately halted the $378,000 annual funding the privately run Northridge center receives from the state Department of Social Services and Los Angeles Unified School District.

It also sent administrators of the 10-year-old rehabilitation program scurrying to find a new house to rent in the San Fernando Valley. A suitable rental had not been located by day's end.

"This has been a nightmare," Judith Weber, the institute's president, said Wednesday night. "Right now, we're out of business. I'm about ready to throw in the towel and walk away."

Neighbors Welcome Closing

The development was welcomed by neighbors who live in expensive homes near the institute, which is across the street from California State University, Northridge.

Sam Niknam, who has lived next door to the institute for four years, said youngsters from the center have repeatedly climbed his backyard fence and jumped into his swimming pool.

"They make terrible noises at various times of the day and night. My wife got sick because of the tension," Niknam said. "The kids are just victims--this place is not the place for them. They cannot be good neighbors. They need a bigger place."

Cynthia Bradford, who lives a few doors away from the rehabilitation center, said most homeowners in the area are frightened by the center, which uses "aversion therapy," a system of rewards and punishment designed to change the behavior of the residents. In earlier years, the punishments included spanking, pinching and squirting with cold water.

"We hear screaming all the time, like someone's being stabbed. It's frightening and disgusting. Those kids deserve better," she said.

Bradford said the institute has been the focus of neighborhood controversy since 1981, when a 14-year-old autistic boy died there. Bradford said she and other neighbors witnessed the dead boy being removed "in restraints" from the house.

An inquest found that the boy died of natural causes, but the incident sparked a state investigation into the therapy used at the center and it was put on probation for two years in 1982 by the state Department of Social Services.

Therapy Toned Down

Weber said Wednesday that the institute has since toned down its system of aversion therapy. "We have a lot more rewards now," she said.

She said the center's residents sometimes become violent because of their autism, a neurological disorder characterized by severe withdrawal.

"This is a place of last resort for these kids. We take kids nobody else will take," Weber said.

Among the six residents of the center is Weber's 19-year-old autistic son, Toby. He and the others were quickly evacuated Saturday night when smoke alarms sounded, she said.

Burglars Blamed for Fire

The fire caused $5,000 in damage, gutting an office and causing smoke damage to most of the house. Detectives in charge of the case were unavailable for comment Wednesday, but Weber said the fire apparently was set by someone who forced open a sliding-glass door and stole a newly acquired office safe containing $300.

The closure Wednesday came after state officials refused to allow Weber to continue renting motel space for the center's residents, as she had for two nights after the fire. Officials said the motel space had not been inspected and undergone certification procedures required for licensed autistic centers.

Emergency permission was granted Tuesday for the former residents to sleep in their smoke-blackened house one night. All but one of the residents, who range in age from 15 to 21, were returned to the care of their parents Wednesday night, according to Behavior Research Institute officials.

Martha Mills, district manager of the San Fernando Valley Community Care Licensing office, said housing is available for all six residents at other licensed facilities if needed.

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