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Orange County Focus

Countywide : Approval Sought for Orangewood Study

September 10, 1993|GEOFF BOUCHER

Hoping to come up with some solutions, county social service officials are asking the Board of Supervisors to approve a 12-month, in-depth study of overcrowding at Orangewood Children's Home.

The plan, which will be considered by the supervisors next week, proposes that two staff members spend a year delving into the causes of crowding at the emergency shelter, chief among them the increasingly longer stays by troubled children.

The average daily population at the home for abused, distressed or neglected children has exceeded its 235-bed capacity for the past five months and for 13 of the past 15 months. The facility in Orange had a daily average of 241 in May, peaking at 260.

A major cause of the problem is the longer stays by the troubled children who seek shelter at the facility, said Bob Griffith, chief deputy director of the county Social Services Agency. Records show the average stay was 14 days in 1979, compared to 33 days this year.

Exploring the reasons for the increasingly long stints may help Orangewood officials find ways to reduce the length of the stays or redirect resources to ease the situation.

Supervisor William G. Steiner, a longtime advocate of child welfare issues and former director of Orangewood's fund-raising foundation, said improving the flow of children through the shelter is vital to maintaining the quality of care.

"The private sector generated $13 million in the past decade to construct these facilities with the belief that they would be sufficient through the year 2000," Steiner said. "That was the goal, but the reality is the average length of stay has doubled, and we're falling short of providing the service we expected."

He said solutions can only come through exploring systemic causes, which likely include lengthy court custody proceedings and delays in finding available community havens for the children after they leave Orangewood.

Even without the benefit of hard numbers and documented trends that a study would yield, Griffith said that the day-to-day experiences of Orangewood's staff members and common sense hint at some of the causes for longer stays.

"The county population is rising, and the number of child abuse reports is growing even faster than that," Griffith said. "Meanwhile, our resources are not growing at the same rate."

In addition to an increase in the number of cases, he said, Orangewood's youthful clientele in the 1990s have often weathered far more serious abuse than their counterparts in past decades.

Many come to the shelter with developmental disabilities or drug addictions inherited before birth from drug-using mothers--troubles that require longer stays or make placement in more permanent care extra difficult.

Steiner pushed for the study when the supervisors considered Orangewood's finances and performance during June budget hearings.

The two staff positions proposed for the study had been among those to be cut from the budget.

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