Agnes Trinchero has spotted a trend that worries her.
Trinchero is executive director of Florence Crittenton Services of Orange County, a private, nonprofit agency that has provided help to troubled adolescent girls, many of them pregnant or already parents, for 23 years. More recently, the organization has expanded to provide services to abused and neglected infants and toddlers as well.
Crittenton's residential centers were intended to serve its young clients temporarily, just until they could be reunited with their families.
But lately, Trinchero says, fewer and fewer of them have any family to go home to--no parents, not even an aunt, uncle, cousin or grandparent.
In most cases those relatives do exist, somewhere, and some can even be located. But even then, they show so little interest in the child that for all practical purposes they might as well have vanished.
"Whenever a child comes to us, we ask, 'Who do they have that's interested in them? Who can we work with in planning the next step?' " Trinchero says. "But 80% to 90% of the kids I'm seeing today have no steady family resource to use.
"It's a waste of time, almost, the pretense that if somewhere you could find them, there's someone out there who would help this child," Trinchero says. "We've concluded that there is no other there there."
Between April 1, 1988, and March 31, 1989, Crittenton served 234 children, 172 adolescent girls and 62 infants. A third of the adolescent girls were either pregnant or mothers. Two-thirds had a history of physical or sexual abuse by relatives or others.
Every year, Trinchero says, more and more of the Crittenton kids have nowhere to go during holidays.
Growing up without a family is painful for all the children. But in each one, the wounds are a little different. Some become depressed--or even attempt suicide--while others respond aggressively, lashing out at anyone who tries to become close to them.
But there are some common problems, Trinchero says.
Most do have some memories of family life, usually a series of crises, often with "a changing parade of caretakers," Trinchero says. "Because their background is chaotic, crisis-bent, concentrating on survival for the moment, most of these youngsters have never trusted that there is an exact tomorrow. They're more geared toward instant gratification, because that's all they know."
That background leaves them with a certain immaturity, she says. "They may be 15 or 16 years old, but in many ways they're more like 6- to 8-year-olds, a small child inside a large child's body," Trinchero says. "You have to take the chronology into account, but there's an unsatisfied need of the younger child.
"There's a child in all of us, you know. We all need to at least have someone who'll . . . pat us on the back. Lord knows I do.
"But how do you get it? Because of what's happened to them, often these kids can be very unattractive and demanding when they need something," Trinchero says. "They can be mouthy, attacking, aggressive, unladylike and unlovable. So we put them through role-playing to help them learn a better way. We can listen to them and then say, 'The way you just talked to me, if I were someone else and didn't know you were a wonderful person inside, I would just tell you to go away.' "
Healthy families serve as a sounding board for children, Trinchero says, giving them constant feedback about what's right and what's wrong, what works and what doesn't.
"For these kids there's a terrible dearth of values. Most of them have never had any clear-cut rules, even to react against," Trinchero says. "When you grow up in chaos, with the rules changing every day, never knowing whether you'd get a slap or a smile, it's hard to understand rules."
Trinchero says she and others at Crittenton are getting used to the idea of children without families. Even though the organization's services were never intended to be a permanent substitute for the family bond, the agency is adapting to its young clients' needs.
"There are a lot of things we decided we had to provide or they wouldn't get," Trinchero says.
But for the kids, it's much more difficult to give up the notion that there's somebody out there, somewhere, who cares.
"It's only natural for them to be seeking those people, but we try to help them with the question of what it would mean if they found them. They have to ask themselves, 'How is it that I love this person who used to beat me up? Or a father who never showed up? A mother who stood by while I got raped by men who were visiting her?' "
Trinchero says she tries to get across the idea that whatever these parents did, they did it because of their own problems, "so that they (the children) feel less rejected. Your mother didn't give you what you needed because she couldn't do it for anybody. It wasn't about you."