A foster family who ran the only remaining emergency shelter for abused children in Ventura County closed its doors last weekend, the latest casualty of an already beleaguered program.
Fred and Betty Tepesano, an Oak View couple who have cared for about 400 children over the last five years, said they no longer could endure the stresses of providing a 24-hour-a-day refuge.
"It's rewarding work," said Fred Tepesano, a 57-year-old department store manager. "We're just burned out."
The departure of the Tepesanos marked a new low for the county-sponsored program, which just a year ago had four families providing a total of 20 beds to battered and neglected children.
It also mirrored the problem encountered by counties throughout the state of persuading families to open their doors to the thousands of traumatized children who need emergency shelter every year.
Need a Challenge
"This isn't for people who just want a nice little kid to help," said Diana Caskey, Ventura County's foster home recruiter, a new position that she filled last month. "It's for folks who are really looking for a challenge."
While other Southern California counties have been able to maintain a supply of such emergency homes, Ventura is the first county to bottom out, say officials from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
For the roughly 830 Ventura County children removed from their homes by social workers every year, that has meant an uncomfortable transition during an already difficult experience.
Rather than being placed in emergency shelters where families are equipped to handle a late-night visit, the youths are sent to regular foster homes that may not be prepared for such a call, Caskey said.
While emergency shelters are designed to house children for up to 30 days before they are returned to their parents or placed in a permanent facility, conventional foster families keep their children for as long as a year and do not expect new arrivals.
"It's a very uncomfortable situation that really is wrong," Caskey said. "It may be better than leaving a child in an abusive and neglective situation. But just by a smidge."
Not long ago, for instance, Caskey said she found herself at 3 a.m. in the Simi Valley police station with four children who had been taken from their parents because of suspected sexual abuse. It took 90 minutes of phone calls and negotiations to persuade foster families to take the children, and then she succeeded only by splitting up the children and driving them at that hour to homes in different ends of the county.
"It was just absurd," she said. "I can't quite explain what it feels like to have children come in and you're shuffling them around without an appropriate place to put them."
By comparison, Santa Barbara County had six emergency shelter homes with a total of 15 beds to handle 408 abused children last year, San Bernardino County had 27 homes with 159 beds to handle 2,154 children and San Diego County had 232 homes with 501 beds for 4,235 children.
Los Angeles and Orange counties have large public emergency shelters that, while not eliminating the need for emergency foster homes, provide full-time professional care and serve as central facilities to which all battered children are first taken.
Last year, Ventura County announced plans to build an 85-bed shelter near Camarillo State Hospital, but private efforts to raise the estimated $10 million for construction costs are probably five years from completion, said Helen Reburn, deputy director of county Children's Services.
"We believe it will be a reality," Reburn said. "I think given the critical shortage of emergency shelters, though, there's a certain amount of impatience on the part of all of us."
In the meantime, the county faces several disadvantages in persuading families to convert their homes into emergency shelters.
The financial rewards are limited, with families receiving a flat rate of $175 a month for every bed kept available for emergency needs. In addition to the flat rate, they receive from $294 to $412 a month, depending on the age of the child, for expenses when the beds are occupied.
While those rates are comparable to other areas, Ventura County foster families lose out when it comes to vacation time. One weekend every six weeks and two full weeks of vacation every year is the only respite a family gets from being on call around the clock.
Other counties, because they have more emergency shelter homes to choose from, can give vacation time to foster families whenever they request a break.
Moreover, Ventura County's escalating housing costs have left many families dependent on two incomes and unable to provide full-time care for children, county officials say.