This is a busy season at Casa de Amparo, the only emergency shelter in North County for the area's growing number of abused and neglected children.
The stress of the holiday season can deepen a family fissure to the point of threats and violence.
Unrealized expectations, haunting memories and the cold weather that drives families indoors take a toll. And there is always the specter of alcohol, which can turn a time of celebration into ugly confrontation.
"Holidays can evoke a lot of conflicting emotions among parents and bring back a lot of unhappiness in them," said Casa de Amparo director Judith Haworth-Adams. "Parents are under great pressure at times like this."
House of Refuge
When the pressure becomes intolerable, the children are brought--by police, social workers, medical personnel, and sometimes by the parents themselves--to Casa de Amparo (Spanish for House of Refuge), a private nonprofit organization under contract to San Diego County.
"The children we see have often been slapped, shaken and dropped repeatedly," Haworth-Adams said. "As a result, many arrive with hearing and speech problems and a feeling of worthlessness."
Run on a shoestring budget, Casa is housed in a dark and decaying facility adjacent to Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. The site once was a Catholic girls' school and living quarters for nuns.
While the North County population has increased dramatically in recent years, county funding for Casa has been static. By the county Department of Social Services' own estimates, North County should have 60 to 70 "short-term" beds for abused and neglected children, not just the 23 offered at Casa.
When Casa is full--as it often is--children must be taken to the Hillcrest Receiving Home or the private New Alternatives program, both in San Diego.
Of Casa's annual budget of just under $1 million, the biggest share comes from the state-funded Aid to Families with Dependent Children and foster care programs ($349,000), the Marine Corps ($206,000), and the state Department of Education ($101,000).
The county allocates $65,000 from the Community Action Partnership program--an amount that has remained unchanged for at least five years. In fact, the $65,000 falls into the category of "discretionary funding"--money that could be used elsewhere--and is now being eyed by the Board of Supervisors to build and staff new jails.
After a series of hearings this fall, the supervisors will meet again next month or early in February to comb through the discretionary programs to find a way to trim the budget by $32 million.
Meanwhile, Casa officials are encouraged by word from county Supervisor's Chairman Brian Bilbray that his colleagues hope to avoid any cuts in social service or health programs.
To meet the daily needs of Casa children, an aggressive attempt is made to recruit volunteers and donations.
"People just don't realize how badly we need their help," said Gloria Foote, an Oceanside stockbroker and financial planner who serves on Casa's board of directors. "If people have it, we need it: clothing, food, diapers, books, cleaning materials, labor, everything."
A Christmas open house attracted 200 people, all potential volunteers. A group of North County comics, who call themselves the Sarkasym Theatre, held a Casa fund-raiser in late November, a la Comic Relief.
Capital Bank of Carlsbad sponsored a Christmas drive to collect paper goods, cleaning supplies and toiletries. Bonsall Women's Club donated $500.
Casa, a United Way agency, has also received assistance from a local car dealership and employees of Southern California Edison Co., which runs the San Onofre nuclear power plant in the northwestern corner of San Diego County.
Ambitious Fund Drive
Still, Casa's most ambitious fund-raising effort is yet to come--a five-year plan to build a permanent facility across the street from the current Parish House. It is to be modeled after Orangewood, a private 170-bed home for dependent children in Orange County, considered state-of-the-art among child-welfare specialists.
At a cost of $8 million (80% private funds) to build, Orangewood offers mostly semi-private, dormitory-style rooms, in stark contrast to the drafty and crowded bunkhouse setting of Casa. Orangewood is arranged in a village setting, with social workers and therapists in nearby dwellings.
"We're comfortable with the treatment and the 24-hour day-to-day staff involvement the children receive at Casa," said Lana Willingham, deputy director of the county's children's services bureau. "But it is definitely a decaying physical plant that is far from ideal."
Casa officials are undaunted by the fund-raising task ahead.
"The year 1988 is going to be a remarkable one for Casa," said Haworth-Adams, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor. "We're going to secure the land we need and begin our capital (fund-raising) campaign.
"If Madonna can earn $42 million a year, I have no doubt we can find the money we need for children's services."