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Escaping Juvenile Hall : Using No Bars or Guards, Casa Victoria Offers Home to Delinquent Girls

May 01, 1986|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

When 15-year-old Lucy first came to live in a neat, beige stucco house in Whittier in March, she never imagined "placement" would be like this.

There are no bars on the windows, no guard at the door and no fence around the yard.

The house does not even slightly resemble the juvenile hall in central Los Angeles, where she had spent two months after getting arrested for possession and being under the influence of PCP, a hallucinogenic drug.

"I thought it was going to be like a (jail) lock-down," said Lucy, which is not her real name.

Home for Up to 6 Girls

The teen-ager is living at Casa Victoria, the only group home for adolescent females on probation in the Southeast Los Angeles county area. The home, run by a national Latina organization, can accept up to six girls who are eligible for alternative placement by the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Lucy, a chronic runaway from her own home, will soon be completing a six-month probation at Casa Victoria.

"I wanted to go to open placement," she said. "I want to start a new life and get my (act) together."

The goal of the residential group home is to "provide a positive alternative to incarceration for adolescent girls in the juvenile justice system," said Gloria Moreno-Wycoff, director of Casa Victoria.

She explained that the home--which attempts to reunify the girl with her family--is a steppingstone between the juvenile hall and rejoining one's own family.

"The home is a community setting with a lot of structure," said Moreno-Wycoff, noting that girls at the home must follow a long set of rules.

Casa Victoria is one of about 60 foster and group homes in the Los Angeles area that provides services for young probationers, said Jane Martin, director of the central placement office for the Probation Department.

When a judge removes a youngster from family custody, it is Martin's job to match the child with one of the homes. "We look at the background and try to figure out what is best to help the child," she said. Casa Victoria, open just six months, has given the placement office another alternative in the Southeast area.

Of the 1,800 juveniles now in detention at three county juvenile halls, 350 are eligible to live in open settings in foster or group homes. But they are remaining in detention because there is a chronic shortage of group and foster homes, Martin said. About 1,400 children are currently in homes.

Homes like Casa Victoria contract with the Probation Department to provide services to the juveniles, ranging from foster home care to intensive psychiatric treatment. Girls can stay at a home up to two years.

Although taking six girls out of the detention system can hardly make a dent in the problem, Martin praises the program for its primary goal of family reunification.

"Casa Victoria brings to the program an intensity that is appreciated by the officers who work with the girls there," Martin said. "They know what it is they are trying to accomplish and they are trying hard to do that."

Since taking in its first girl in November, Casa Victoria has become not only a home to female probationers but also a dream come true for Moreno-Wycoff.

In 1983, she chaired an ad-hoc committee for the Comision Feminil Mexicana Nacional, a national organization of Latino professional women, to study starting a group home as a project.

The 2,000-member organization found that there was "nothing established that was bilingually staffed and that serviced the family" unit as a whole, said Beatriz Stotzer, the group's national president, who lives in Los Angeles. "We felt we could take this on as a commitment . . . to address those needs."

Moreno-Wycoff began writing proposals and soon lined up contributions from Atlantic Richfield Co., the Gannett Foundation, Soroptimist International of Whittier and other organizations. "But Comision still had to borrow $25,000 to open the doors," said Moreno-Wycoff, noting that the organization had to have $37,000 on hand, plus money for the house's lease and furnishings, before being issued a license to operate.

The home is the organization's third major project, and it is considering opening a home for pregnant women in Visalia in a year, Stotzer said.

One of the reasons the organization decided to open a home in the Whittier area is because of Moreno-Wycoff and strong support from the Rio Hondo chapter, where she is a member.

"This is Gloria's dream. It really needed that person behind it" to make it work, said Carmen Luna, president of the Los Angeles chapter of Comision. Luna added that the organization also targeted the Whittier area because there were no facilities there that addressed the needs of Latinas.

Although Moreno-Wycoff makes it clear Casa Victoria "cannot cater to any ethnicity," she said the environment is tailored to Latinas. Most of the staff is bilingual and the part-time therapist who comes twice a week for individual and group sessions is also bilingual.

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