Before Helen Maxwell became its director in 1986, MacLaren Children's Center was a fearful place, a dingy institution plagued with allegations of over-medicated youngsters and indifferent care. The El Monte shelter for abused and abandoned children was described by some who knew it as a dumping ground, a holding tank and "the county's oozing wound."
Children sent to the center hated it so much they often tried to escape. Elizabeth Becker was so upset at being placed there for six weeks at age 15 that she says she would have committed suicide if she had had to go back. She particularly remembers the "jail-like beds that were bolted to the floor" and "a padded room where we were put when we were bad."
But now the guard behind the bulletproof glass at the front door often banters with homesick shelter "graduates" who are trying to get back in. And when Maxwell, the eighth director of the county facility in 10 years, walks through the newly pastel-painted halls, children gravitate to her for a pat and a friendly chat.
As she showed a visitor around one day last week, an 8-year-old sadly reported he "might go to an aunt in Phoenix" after his court date on Sept. 4; a 10-year-old spontaneously asked if she could "stay here as long as I live"; and a teen-ager asked her opinion of emancipation, which would mean he could live on his own.
Maxwell, a pretty woman with a halo of curly hair, knew each child's status. She discussed their situations in calm, reassuring tones, explaining, "We think it is important to treat each person with respect."
Such attitudes, and Maxwell's work at MacLaren, have "made the difference between night and day," says Catherine Tracy, chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Service and one of Maxwell's bosses. "MacLaren has become a real refuge and a home. I used to worry that kids would lose ground when they went there. Now I know their trauma will start to heal and they will also grow. I get lists from there of kids who simply don't want to leave."
The turnaround at MacLaren is making children's advocates take a closer look at Maxwell and her innovations. She obviously has a method to which attention must be paid.
Not one to brag, Maxwell simply says she has "changed the focus of MacLaren" away from "custodial care" and has "de-emphasized as much as possible the shelter's institutional nature by using environmental enhancements."
From Dreary to Cheerful
Translated into real life, expert observers say, this means that in two years, Maxwell has transformed the center from dreary to cheerful. She has changed the staff attitude from punitive to positive. And she has set up "intervention" programs to help stop her charges' "cycle of misery" the moment they walk through MacLaren's door.
Maxwell prefers not to discuss what others say is the marked improvement she has made at MacLaren. But professionals who have watched and worked with her suggest she has succeeded because she is the first to approach her job "as a clinician, rather than as a bureaucrat." Unlike her predecessors, she does not view the shelter as a holding tank for troubled kids headed to other homes, though technically it is. Instead, she sees it as an opportune spot to buttress the self-esteem of and introduce "humanizing experiences" to youngsters who are in such emotional distress that they cannot be placed anywhere else.
Some have been uprooted from their homes because of sexual or other physical abuse, drugs or sheer neglect; others have been rejected by their real or foster parents. The children may be psychotic, retarded or physically impaired. They may be so frightened that they ask to sleep in the well-lighted halls instead of in their own rooms. They arrive, traumatized, in pajamas or with just the clothes on their backs.
'All Very Hurt'
From infants up to age 18, these youngsters display behavior reflecting their troubled pasts. "The more you're hurt, the more you'll act out," Maxwell says, "and these kids are all very hurt."
A pudgy boy with sleepy eyes comes up to her for a hug. Afterwards, Maxwell explains that he has round-the-clock guards to protect him from injuring himself or others during violent fits. Minutes later, it takes three strong men to hold the boy on a couch as he screams and flails.
Can anything help such kids? They are still children, after all, and "it is better to build a child than to repair a man," Maxwell says, explaining that her "building blocks" take many forms, from the superficial to the profound.