Each year, due to the scourge of child abuse and neglect, Orange County officials remove about 1,000 children from the homes they are living in and take them someplace safer.

These children represent many of the more than 5,000 substantiated claims of child abuse that come through the county’s child abuse hotline each year. Historically, many of them would be sent to group homes or shelters, such as the county’s Orangewood Children and Family Center, or placed with foster families with few mental health or educational support services.

But a sea change in thought about how to care for children in this vulnerable population has led to a major shift from shelter-based care towards family care — whether with the child’s birth family, extended family members, or a foster family. Along with the change has come more mentorship, mental health and support services.

“I have been here 30 years, and I have never seen the system change so rapidly, in regards to what’s going on with placement issues, trying to address family-based care, mental health needs of the children being met, [and] keeping siblings together,” said Gary Taylor, who oversees the county’s child welfare system at the county Social Services Agency.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a national tradition first started in the 1980s that was most recently declared this year for Orange County by supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett.

“We’re very fortunate to have effective child abuse prevention programs here in the county that succeed because of the partnerships created among social services agencies, schools, faith-based communities, civic organizations, law enforcement, and the business community,” Bartlett said during the most recent supervisors meeting.

A Drop in Child Abuse Reports

Figures from the county suggest that the overall effort is making progress, with significant drops in both substantiated child abuse reports and the number of children removed from their homes.

Substantiated child abuse reports declined 25 percent in recent years – from 7,367 in 2010 to 5,535 in 2014. The number of children in foster care fell 29 percent, from 3,113 in January 2007 to 2,220 this January.

Local officials say Orange County has been ahead of the curve on child welfare, with efforts to move away from institutional care toward family care happening here for years before the practice was enshrined in state law last year through AB 403.

That law, among other things, generally limits institutional care to short-term stays and boosts resources for treatment and therapy in foster homes, as well as recruitment and training of foster families. It comes after decades of research pointing to foster children generally faring far better in family settings than in institutions.

“The evidence is clear that young people who report feeling connected to at least one parent do better across every outcome studied,” states the final 2003 report of the White House Task Force For Disadvantaged Youth.

A report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of the nation’s leading child welfare foundations, summed up the research findings in a later report.

“When disadvantaged young people experience a caring relationship with an adult they are more likely to do well in school and overcome adversity,” the report states.

“Youths who are connected to families are not as inclined to take unsafe risks; they tend not to do drugs, get pregnant, feel seriously depressed, and be involved in delinquent activity, compared to young people who have no adult connections. Parents protect youth and give them the ability to bounce back from misfortune.”

Orange County’s pivot away from institutions has led to a drop in the number of county foster children in shelter care, from about 750 or 800 in years’ past to about 120 today, Taylor said.

While the exact budget impacts of the shift remain to be seen, officials said there generally are financial savings as children move out of institutions and into family-based care. One national study found institutional care costs at least two times as much as foster care.

Today, many of the youth left in shelter care have serious emotional and behavioral issues, like self-cutting, substance abuse, and running away, officials say.

These kids “desperately” need homes, said Elizabeth DenBleyker, a social worker who serves as spokeswoman for the county Social Services Agency. “There are over 70 youth in the county operated shelter for whom we currently have no resource family available,” she said.

They include teens with serious behavioral and emotional issues, children with special medical needs, sibling groups, and children who were forced into prostitution. A total of 20 foster families are being sought for these children.

“These are the community’s children and they come with trauma and special needs – they need families who are willing to provide a safe and stable home for them while they grow, develop, learn, and heal,” said DenBleyker.

Maintaining a Stable Environment

Another part of the overall effort is to move away from a situation where kids are moved from foster home to foster home, and instead have a stable family-based home setting with support services.

“That placement stability is critical,” said Taylor, adding that support services include therapy, educational mentoring, support for caregivers and parents, and the personal mentorship of former foster youth and caregivers.

The idea is to bring the services to the family, rather than families needing to travel to various places.

“You wrap the services around the family in their home, and then you have a large number of people…partnering and teaming” to make sure child is well cared for, said Taylor, adding that the positive impact of this approach has been “huge.”

This “wraparound” approach has also been used to address homelessness and other social issues, with groups like the Illumination Foundation citing major successes in reducing chronic homelessness while also saving public dollars.

The county is also providing more training – both for county staff and foster parents –  focused on the role trauma plays in brain development and behavior, Taylor said. For example, when a child at a foster home is stomping and screaming, or otherwise acting out, it’s important to know that could very well be a manifestation of trauma related to the abuse they suffered.

We “have to stop and take a moment to think” about the “trauma that he or she has suffered,” Taylor said.

In addition to changing from within, the county has ramped up its outreach to various community groups to address child abuse and neglect, with officials saying they’re working on the issue with over 50 churches, mosques, and synagogues.

“We’re really big about partnering, and realize we can’t do it alone…it really is a community issue,” Taylor said.

That’s part of an early prevention effort, whose goal is to connect families that are starting to experience problems with support – such as individual therapy and education – to address problems early on.

The overall goal is to “get those families that are just beginning to experience problems” into those services before it becomes more serious, said Gene Howard, who was the county’s director of child welfare from 1985 to 1995 and now leads a consortium of 17 children’s service providers called the Orange County Alliance for Children and Families.

The county Social Services Agency operates 15 “family resource centers” throughout the county that provide support services related to parenting and finances, as well as individual therapy if necessary for children and families, he said.

When he was running the child welfare system, Howard said, “we had way too many children” taken from homes and put in foster or group homes with very little in way of support services or early intervention.

“We’ve come from there to a point where we have a much broader array of prevention services, we have a whole different attitude and approach to how we’re dealing with families and looking at” partnering with them rather than punishing them, Howard said.

The system is overall doing “very well,” he said, but added that there’s a need for more mental health services to be available for children and families, and to figure out more effective prevention efforts and to find homes for children with serious emotional and mental challenges.

“We have to figure out a way that we can, in a shortened period of time, help these kids with these serious problems get to a point where they can be maintained in a more family-like environment,” Howard said. “We don’t want them in institutional care for years.”

“If we could do a better job in the early years, then we should have much, much less to deal with as these individuals become adults and their problems get exacerbated,” he added.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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