A group home for troubled teenagers is being forced off the grounds of UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange and castigated by government regulators after the alleged sexual assault of one boy and a series of other disturbing incidents.
The operators of Research and Treatment Institute have agreed to leave their quarters in a faded building not far from the hospital's emergency room by late June at the request of medical center officials, who said children in the facility were poorly supervised and "out of control."
In just the first eight months of the home's existence, UC Irvine police were called to it more than 200 times, usually for runaways and fire alarms, but also for assault and battery, vandalism and disturbing the peace. In any setting the trend would have been unsettling, but this unfolded on the grounds of a bustling medical center.
Yet despite the home's turbulent history, the case is not a clear-cut one. For while one branch of the state bureaucracy is moving to revoke its license in Orange County, another is deciding whether to let Research and Treatment Institute reopen a bigger facility in Azuza, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
All the conflicting pressures and deep ambivalence of the child welfare system are laid bare at such facilities:
County social workers desperate to create a place for society's most difficult foster children; neighbors and landlords rebelling at the prospect of living with adolescents who throw tantrums, set fires, hallucinate and attack their caretakers; and state officials pressured to license homes to meet a growing demand, while attempting to enforce minimum standards of care.
Child welfare officials often don't agree on how to respond. Orange County social workers stopped placing children at the home in February, but Los Angeles County sent at least three more children there even after the sexual assault had been reported.
"We are trying to respond to the needs of social workers and counties, who really, really need a place for these difficult kids," said Martha Lopez, head of the state Community Care Licensing division. "As long as the homes are safe and healthy and have a good program, there is reason to try to salvage them."
But determining what is safe and healthy is open to interpretation.
The saga of Research and Treatment Institute is detailed in a series of documents obtained by The Times--confidential reports from Los Angeles and Orange county child welfare officials, internal medical center memos and state licensing documents.
The crisis point arrived in early February, when a mentally disabled 13-year-old boy allegedly was sexually assaulted by other residents. The reported attack touched off a series of investigations and only reinforced a decision by the home's landlord--UC Irvine--to evict it, officials said.
The university medical center had complained for months that children were poorly tended. Campus police were called 206 times between July 1996 and Feb. 26 of this year. There was also a dispute over nearly $100,000 in back rent. In sum, the home created an "intolerable" disruption, said Medical Center Director Mark R. Laret.
The founders and operators of Research and Treatment Institute--which has two other group homes in Covina that reports show are in compliance with state regulations--say that they absolutely do not condone violent or sexual acts by their clients. But they say university and government regulators do not understand that, regardless of the care these adolescents receive, they are bound to act in potentially dangerous ways.
"We were clear to everyone [before the home opened] that for the first six to nine months we were going to rock and roll," said Chuck Leeb, the clinical psychologist who founded Research and Treatment Institute. "All the literature and practical experience shows this will happen with a new facility.
"These kids have long histories of this kind of behavior," said Leeb, referring to runaways and angry outbursts that have prompted much of the police attention. "Then they come here and do the behavior they have always done and . . . suddenly we are the bad guys."
But Patrick T. Smith, the state licensing official who oversees the home, said: "I never buy the statement that kids exhibit their pathology and you can't do anything. I don't buy that as an excuse."
Responding to an Acute Need
Leeb and partner David Morrison, an educational psychologist, said they formed Research and Treatment Institute in 1991 to treat the expanding population of severely emotionally disturbed adolescents. The next year their nonprofit company opened a home for disturbed preteens in Covina that would eventually grow to 24 beds.
There has been an acute need for homes that treat the most difficult children, called "Level 14s." In the child welfare bureaucracy, the term refers to the highest level of compensation allocated to group homes--more than $60,000 a year per child.