LAGUNA BEACH — They are called "throwaway kids," teen-agers who can't go home again.
"The parents don't want them and they want to give them to somebody," said Becky Anderson, a counselor at the Laguna Beach youth shelter. "Anybody. Get rid of them."
With such youngsters in mind, organizers at the city's Community Service Programs Youth Shelter are working to open a transitional living center for teens. It would be the only home quite like it in Orange County.
The Laguna Beach City Council gave the dream a boost Tuesday night by promising $100,000 for the project if the shelter scores a matching grant from United Parcel Service of America.
As envisioned by CSP workers, the transitional living center would be a place where six mature teen-agers 16 through 19 could live with a supervisor for up to six months while attending school or working part time. In a comfortable, homelike environment, they would be taught basic life skills: how to budget, apply for a job, balance a checkbook.
Teens also would receive at least an hour of counseling each week, in part, to help them cope with the loss of their family.
County social service workers say such a center is sorely needed.
"This is big news if they're really going to do it," said Dick Shaner, a senior social worker at the county's Child Abuse Registry. "A lot of kids are kind of floating around in limbo at that age. If we can get them off the street, that would be great."
Three youth shelters now operate in Orange County: the CSP center in Laguna Beach, Casa Youth Shelter in Los Alamitos and Huntington Youth Shelter in Huntington Beach. All offer emergency housing and intensive counseling for teens from troubled homes, but are only designed to offer assistance for about two weeks. All strive to reunite their young clients with their families.
"Our children need their families more than they need anything else," said Donna Kendal, resource coordinator for the Huntington Youth Shelter, which opened last year.
Workers at the other two more established shelters say their success rate at reuniting families has dropped in recent years. At CSP, more than 90% of the estimated 280 youngsters who enter the shelter each year were once reunited with their family. Now, Executive Director Margot R. Carlson said, the reunification rate has fallen to about 65%.
There are many reasons--families ripped apart by drug or alcohol abuse, parents who seem bereft of necessary coping skills, strangling economic times.
"You have economic pressures on a family, they're trying to survive. . . . The tighter the economy is, the more the fallout," Carlson said. "Usually, it's the children who are penalized when the family malfunctions."
When a crisis erupts, the youngsters may find their way to one of the three shelters. If they are not returned to their families, shelter workers say, the youths might be moved to foster or group homes.
Neither option generally suits these wizened, more independent teens who have little hope of returning home, shelter workers say.
"At Casa we recognize there are older, mature, throwaway children who we have no resources for," Clinical Director Gary Zager said. "What happens today is the safety net isn't really there for some of these children."
The result is an increasing number of young people who shelter workers say could fall prey to gangs or be enticed into prostitution or other criminal activities.
"These are the lost kids," Anderson said. "They are pretty much at a crossroads and they could go one way or the other."
Often, these are teens whose childhoods were fast-forwarded, who earned their maturity by taking care of their parents--people with overwhelming problems of their own.
"It's not just street smarts, it's . . . maturity without bitterness," Anderson said. "They manage to keep their hearts, which is amazing to me."
Shelter workers also express compassion for the parents of some of the teens, youngsters who may be mature but trying. "Some youngsters are difficult from the get-go," Carlson said. "Some parents aren't equipped to deal with a challenging child. They can't do it."
Because of their backgrounds, many of these teens come equipped with clear goals. They have their sights set on the future, shelter workers say, and dreams that might be realized under proper tutelage.
Carlson said CSP officials hope to learn Oct. 1 whether they will receive the $100,000 grant from United Parcel Service.
In the meantime, they are looking for a home in Laguna Beach with at least four bedrooms and a price tag of around $300,000.
While most of the youngsters would transfer from the existing Laguna Beach shelter, Carlson said, the new center would also accept referrals from police, probation officers and the other social services programs in the county.
With the right help, shelter workers say, these youngsters might overcome their pasts.
"This is going to be . . . a nourishing and enriching and maturing environment," Carlson said. "They need a chance."