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Centerpiece : A Safe Place : Casa Pacifica's Planned Complex Will Give Foster Children More Comforts Than Home--But Will the Love Be There?

April 08, 1993|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

\o7 It was 8 p.m. when Glenna Brabant got the call. Two children were on the way, a brother and sister.

Brabant, who lives in a four-bedroom Simi Valley home, is used to the calls that sometimes come in the middle of the night. Her house doubles as a shelter home, a place where county social workers and police bring scared and confused children, fresh from suspected abuse, neglect or abandonment by their parents.

On this night, the social worker didn't arrive until 10 o'clock with the children, a boy, 9, and a girl, 11, both bruised. Brabant showed them the bedrooms, the "Mickey room" with its bunk beds and Mickey Mouse sheets, the teen room where two single beds have matching lion bedspreads, and the pink room with its flowered curtains and bedspread.

Brabant's husband, Wayne, fixed the girl a burrito. The boy took a bath and slipped into one of Wayne's big T-shirts. By 11:30 p.m., they were in bed, along with the other three children in the couple's care.

\f7

By the summer of 1994, the emergency shelter care provided by the Brabants and a handful of others will probably be a thing of the past. They will be replaced by the complex Casa Pacifica, a $10-million project being built in Camarillo through an unusual public-private partnership.

Here, on 22 acres off Lewis Road near Camarillo State Hospital, as many as 60 children--infants to 18-year-olds--will live for a short time in one of four homey cottages.

They will even go to school here. For fun, they might take a dip in the solar-heated swimming pool, shoot hoops in the gym, play softball or volleyball, or take a break at the "snack shack." Doctors and therapists will be only a few steps away.

It sounds idyllic, and in fact, critics--what few the project has--say it may be too grand and luxurious, considering most children will stay there only an average of two weeks. Then, a judge will either return them to their parents or decide they are dependents of the court and place them in a foster home.

County officials say the children deserve a better system than they are getting, although they laud the Brabants and others. Every year almost 400 kids are taken from their parents for their own safety. In those first few hours, when the children are frightened and bewildered, they immediately fall into an overburdened patchwork system of emergency care.

"Typically the system is full," said Doug Miller, deputy director of children's services for the county's Public Social Services Agency. With three other homes like the Brabants' and one group home, the county only has 18 beds available on a 24-hour basis for children when they are first removed from their parents.

When those are full, social workers look to a backup list of regular foster homes. With 35 to 40 children in emergency shelter care at any given time, the county almost always is in the "backup mode," Miller said.

"We could get a call at 1 a.m. that Dad drove home drunk and Mom can't be found," Miller said. Then the search for a shelter home begins, with the social worker making call after call.

"It may take her until 4 a.m. to get them placed," he said. Meanwhile, the children, already traumatized by the whole ordeal, are wondering what's going to happen to them.

They might end up in a Thousand Oaks shelter home, when their own home is in, say, Oxnard, making family visits difficult. It might be a home that has room for just one sibling and the other will have to go elsewhere. Later, the children must be schlepped around to doctors and therapists.

The process is stressful for shelter parents as well as for the children, according to Miller. Usually, shelter parents last no more than 18 months. The turnover is relentless.

"They are at our disposal 24 hours," he said. "Their mobility is truly limited. They wear beepers. The stress and anxiety are constant. They are fabulous people, but they become physically and emotionally exhausted."

For the school-age kids, there is another pitfall to the system. They usually don't go to school the whole time they are in shelter care.

Miller wonders: "Kids are going weeks without going to school. Are we being abusive?"

\o7 It's 9 a.m. Friday, the next morning, at the Brabant house and the younger children are just getting up. Glenna Brabant turns down the sounds of Barbara Mandrell singing gospel.

"The older ones like to sleep in," she says, sipping coffee. Two highchairs stand ready for use at the dining room table. In the corner is a rocking horse on springs.

The younger ones get breakfast and then pick out a video--"One Hundred and One Dalmatians"--to watch in the den off the kitchen. The Brabants have 100 or more videos for the kids, including a shelf of Star Trek tapes.

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