Ventura County officials who work with disturbed children were not surprised to learn last year of a sharp increase in the number of youngsters experiencing serious emotional problems.
After all, parents and teachers had become more willing to ask for help by reporting such cases to mental-health workers.
But authorities say they were alarmed that the county lacked a comprehensive intervention program to deal with the children's problems.
Without intervention, the conditions of many children worsened to the point where all that authorities could do was place some of them in costly and restrictive group homes, some of which are not even in the county.
"None of us liked that trend," said Barbara J. Fitzgerald, chief deputy director of the county's Public Social Services Agency. "It wasn't good for the kids. It wasn't good for the families. It wasn't good for the budget."
In an attempt to head off problems faced by emotionally disturbed children and keep a higher percentage of them with their families, Ventura County officials started an interagency program last September designed to deal early with the negative impulses of these children.
In just one year, officials say, the program has helped reduce the percentage of group-home placements here to 8% of the 321 children who have been diagnosed as seriously emotionally disturbed. Before, 10% of such children were in group homes.
The result is $290,000 in savings to the county, officials report.
Child-services authorities here and throughout the state say the new program illustrates how enlightened Ventura County mental health, social service and school authorities are when it comes to dealing with emotionally disturbed youth.
In fact, Donna Dahl, children's services manager for the Mental Health Department in Riverside County, said mental-health agencies throughout California have started copying many of the programs Ventura County has designed to deal with such children.
In a program administered by the state, Riverside, Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties have begun using intervention programs designed in Ventura County to reduce costs of group-home placements.
"Ventura County was first and then the three other counties came on line," Dahl said Friday. Before turning to the early-intervention programs, Dahl said, Riverside County's group-home placement costs were rising by 24% a year. Riverside County is home to about 1.2 million people, including more than 300,000 children, she said.
Ventura County's latest attempt at improving services for children with emotional problems is a combined effort of three county agencies--Social Services, Mental Health Services and the office of the superintendent of schools. It involves placing licensed social workers in nine public schools throughout the county, who are available for counseling during and after school.
"I think it's working," said Dr. Don Kingdon, the county's chief of child and adolescent services. "Not only for the kids and the schools, but for the taxpayers."
Mental-health professionals and others say counseling from social workers reduces the chances that emotionally disturbed children will need group homes. And that, they add, increases the likelihood that their lives will return to normal.
"What we've found is the farther the kid gets away from a regular school, the harder it is for them to come back," Kingdon said.
Under a 1987 state law, mental health and school officials in California counties must work together to treat children with severe emotional conditions.
Prior to the start of the latest Ventura County program, which has no official name, authorities tried several more limited ways to contend with the growing number of disturbed children.
One of the most heralded efforts was the Phoenix School, created three years ago. Phoenix, located in Camarillo, is seen as a school of last resort, one where children of all grade levels are sent when other options for correcting their emotional problems are exhausted.
If a student's behavior cannot be brought under control at Phoenix, the child usually is placed in a group home.
"For a lot of the students, it's the point in their educational career where they can be successful," explained Wayne Saddler, principal at Phoenix the past three years.
The staff consists of teachers and mental health workers, including a school psychologist and specialists in behavior and speech, as well as other areas.
"The students have built a negative behavior pattern that has gotten them in trouble," Saddler said. "What we are trying to do is interrupt that cycle and help them learn a positive way to deal with it."
The Phoenix staff, he said, also works with families, because behavioral problems "do not only occur in the school setting."