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Orange County Unveils Children's Services Plan

Youth: Proposals would aid abused, orphaned. Action follows lawsuit over conditions at shelter.


In the wake of a lawsuit filed against Orange County by a child advocacy group over cramped conditions at the county's only children's shelter, social services officials have unveiled a master plan aimed at providing more emergency services to the county's abused, neglected and orphaned children.

Officials estimate that 5,200 children a year will need temporary shelter by 2010, up from the 3,200 currently assisted by the county system.

The county's Social Services Agency has come under criticism for the overcrowded conditions that force some children to sleep on the floors and in hallways at Orangewood Children's Home, the subject of the lawsuit filed earlier this week.

The master plan, a year in the making, calls for three new or expanded facilities in addition to Orangewood. They include an expanded interim-care facility in Orange to hold up to 100 beds, a cluster of 10 homes in Tustin housing six infants and toddlers in each and a 30-acre site with 220 beds at the vacated El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

Although county officials have cataloged the need, they haven't estimated the cost. Building the Tustin homes at the closed Marine base would cost about $6 million.

"Our ability to protect children from abuse and neglect would be severely threatened without new resources," said Supervisor William G. Steiner, a child advocate for 40 years and former head of the Orangewood Children's Foundation. "Even with the best preventive programs, we need emergency shelter home beds, like now."

Supervisors unanimously approved the plan, which will be brought back with final details in 100 days.

The San Francisco-based Youth Law Center sued the county, alleging that young children are being held for up to two months--twice as long as the law allows--without being placed in foster care. The suit also charges that overcrowding at Orangewood could cause "severe and permanent psychological and physical harm."

Steiner said children being placed in county custody today are far more troubled than those of years past and have much greater needs. One result is the continuing shortage of foster families.

"It's like shoveling sand upstream," he said. "We have a different child today who doesn't run up to a foster family and say, 'I love you.' They use the F-word, and they may be only 3 years old."

Supervisors asked Social Services Agency Director Larry Leaman to send monthly reports on the crowding situation at Orangewood, much like the reports required by a court to track overcrowding at the county's main jail in Santa Ana.

Supervisor Charles V. Smith, the father of two adopted children who are now adults, asked the county to consider raising the per-day rate for foster families overall. Families now receive about $350 a month for each child. Foster parents receive more for children with special needs.

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