I don't have any behavior problems," 14-year-old Damon offered truthfully, sitting in a sparsely furnished bedroom of the Charmichael Group Home in South Los Angeles, a green stucco house next to the train tracks and the curving concrete overpasses of the 110 Freeway. He came to the house three months ago because his mother hadn't kicked her drug habit, his aunt was arrested and his foster mother was "mean."
Besides being separated from his family in the San Fernando Valley, what he likes least about living with a rotating staff for parents and six strangers for brothers is that it's embarrassing. "I keep it to myself. None of my friends know I'm in a group home," said Damon (which is not his real name). On the other hand, there's a basketball hoop in the backyard and sometimes the staff takes the boys camping. They get an allowance if they behave.
His mother, unlike those of most of the other boys, is allowed to visit, but he's still waiting. Meanwhile, there are other things to look forward to, such as the outings officially posted in the living room."Week after next," he said brightly, "we're going to the all-you-can-eat buffet."
At Charmichael, a home with a good reputation, the boys, ages 9 to 15, already display signs of an institutional personality, said the house parent, Kimberly Jenkins. They avoid closeness and refuse to display family photos if they have them because it is a sign of "weakness." Knowing most will move on within a year, Jenkins said she does not get attached to the boys. Although operators at other homes said they believe the opposite, she contends becoming emotionally attached would be "dangerous" for everyone involved.
Despite long established policies seeking substitute families for abused and neglected children, at least 5,500 children in Los Angeles County are still in one of a variety of group homes--the modern variant of the old-fashioned orphanage. Surprisingly, no qualified studies exist to show the effects of growing up in a group home.
While officials said many operators of the county's 460 homes struggle successfully to ensure that the children are better off than they were, others acknowledged that the homes sometimes make matters worse. Among the most serious complaints: Homes are run by amateurs lured by the prospect of easy money; and disruptive children are over-medicated, moved too often to develop basic attachments or re-victimized in facilities whose staff can't cope with some of the most difficult children in the child welfare system.
And, in recent months, at least four such homes in Los Angeles County have come under investigation for a variety of charges, including sexual abuse and neglect. Some experts speculated that the spurt of charges could be the result, in part, of the increasingly troubled children coming into the system.
Helen Kleinberg, a member of the Los Angeles County Commission on Children and Families, which oversees the child welfare system, said it's easier to criticize the group homes than to change them. Not only is the entire system groaning under huge and increasing numbers of abused and neglected children, but society hasn't been willing to supply more than minimum resources to care for them.
Until recently, Kleinberg noted, officials have been preoccupied with safety. Now she said there is a recognition that society must heed its responsibility not only to protect but to nurture the children once it assumes the parents' role. "We have not viewed this population for some reason as all of our responsibility, but they do exist, " she said. "One way or another, I think we're going to pay for them."
On a recent rainy afternoon, an attorney and an observer knocked on the door of a group home in Granada Hills. As the door opened, his client, an 8-year-old girl who has been separated from her drug-addicted mother since birth, could be heard repeatedly screaming an obscenity. Staff members calmed her, but they also had to cope with finding four other girls who had just run away. The police were called.
During his visit with the girl, the attorney said she begged him, "Get me out of here." If she moves, it will be her 17th home.
In the primitive emotional logic of childhood, being removed from an abusive home doesn't mean you've been saved. It often means you've been punished.
Since they are the ones who have to leave home, abused children often believe they are the ones who have misbehaved, said Dr. Janice Carter-Lourensz, a behavioral pediatrician in Los Angeles who consults with agencies dealing with "special needs" children.
"Adults say, 'You're lucky. You ought to be happy, you're leaving.' The daughter cries. She wants to know why they don't want her. Why can't she go home?" she said.