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Finding Proper Homes for Kids Without Them : Social services: Those who will place a 10-year-old whose aunt is accused of torturing him face a Solomon-like decision.


ORANGE — A father who shot and wounded himself when he and his wife were having marital troubles five years ago. A grandmother. A foster home of strangers.

Over the next few weeks, social workers, judges, attorneys and therapists must decide which of these options is the best temporary refuge for a 10-year-old boy who was removed from the Orange home of his aunt, 31-year-old Cynthia Medina, last month. Medina is accused of burning the child's tongue with hot knives and anally penetrating him with a miniature baseball bat.

Based upon their findings, the Orange County Social Services Agency will either ask a Juvenile Court judge to place the boy in a relative's home or send him to live in foster care with people to whom he is not related.

The case, which marks the first time that Orange County prosecutors have charged someone with torture, offers a glimpse at the wrenching decisions that social workers and judges must make in trying to make choices that are in the best interests of children already traumatized by severe abuse.

"We've got to sort through all of the emotional rhetoric coming at us from every side to figure out what to do," said Bob Griffith, deputy director of the Orange County Social Services Agency. "A lot of times, it can be very complicated and difficult choosing between alternatives, none of which may be ideal, but all of which have some factors in their favor."

Sometimes the question of who an abused child should live with is fairly simple. A family member who is willing and able steps forward to take the child, agrees to abide by the court's orders and no one contests the decision. The county pays foster parents--including relatives outside the nuclear family--to care for the child; the amount of the payment depends upon the child's age and special needs.

But the 10-year-old boy's case illustrates the more complicated cases of family breakdown that increasingly are making their way into the Juvenile Court system.

Many "of these children are damaged by the time they get to us. They're not cherubic little angels," said Harold LaFlamme, the Santa Ana attorney whose firm represents children in many Orange County dependency cases. "They have bad habits, bad hygiene. Sometimes the placements fail because the foster parents just simply can't handle the kids."

In every case of child abuse, social workers confront a host of ethical questions as they try to find the best placement for a child. Is it really in a child's best interest to put him in a home with the parents who abused him if a foster parent who is not related to the child is providing better care?

Is it fair to give adults guilty of abuse 18 months to turn their lives around and reclaim their children? What of the bonds that the children forge with their foster parents during this time?

Under the law, in order to remove a child from his parents and place him in a foster home, social workers must prove one or more of the following: placing the child with his parents would pose a substantial danger to his health; the parent must be unwilling to have physical custody; the minor suffers from severe emotional damage; the minor will be at substantial risk of being sexually abused; the parents are incarcerated.

"The parents always have first choice--even if the parent is the offender," said Superior Court Judge David Velasquez, who presides over dependency cases in Orange County. "It's only after reasonable efforts have failed to make the parents' home suitable that you can place the child away from the parents."

Even when parents are deemed not immediately able to care for a child, the Orange County Social Services Agency is required by law to give them 18 months to meet a variety of conditions that would make them suitable caretakers.

These conditions typically include undergoing drug or alcohol rehabilitation and parenting courses, among other programs.

Then it is up to social workers to decide whether the parents have truly changed their ways. Although some parents are never reported for abuse again, others continue to physically and emotionally harm their children time and time again.

After 18 months--an eternity in the lifetime of a young child--social workers can seek to sever parental rights and place the child in a foster home with non-relatives if a parent fails to comply with the conditions set by the court.

Gene Axelrod, who supervises the attorneys who represent the Social Services Agency in dependency cases, says the burden of proof rests with the county agency.

"There has to be clear and convincing evidence before the agency has the authority to place a child in foster care with a non-relative," Axelrod said.

In the Medina case, there is no shortage of relatives willing to take the boy.

The boy's father and grandmother have filed papers requesting custody, according to social services officials, who said that the father has "very strong standing."

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