'I'm going home and start life clean.' : Institution Helps Youths Find the Way

Times Staff Writer

Partying all night and sleeping through the following morning's wake-up alarm, Bill Smith seldom made it to school on time--if at all. He was glad when he was expelled from high school in his sophomore year.

But Bill's freedom was fleeting. When his parents--their patience already stretched to the breaking point by the expulsion and his other behavior problems--discovered early in 1984 that he was shoplifting to support a drug habit; they immediately turned him in to San Bernardino County juvenile authorities.

Bill (a pseudonym) was placed on probation on the condition that he allow the county juvenile department to send him to Boys Republic. No, not to the famed Boys Republic in San Bernardino County, which counted the late screen star Steve McQueen among its alumni. The 17-year-old Bill was sent to the little-known Orange County branch of Boys Republic, tucked away in a converted church in Santa Ana.

"It's been a different experience than I'd been used to," Bill said, reflecting on his 10-month stay at Boys Republic-Orange County during a break from mandatory chores one recent afternoon. "It's been frustrating at times. I've felt like taking off."

Only pride in what he has accomplished and his loyalty to the Boys Republic staff--which made his progress possible--have kept him there, he said.

A Changed Life Style

Today, Bill arises before dawn, goes to school regularly--his grade-point average has gone from F to B--and is holding down his first part-time job.

"I'm going back home and start life clean," said Bill, who is scheduled to be released from Boys Republic-Orange County in a month. Thanks to Boys Republic's twice-monthly family counseling sessions with Bill and his parents, they've learned to communicate with each other and accommodate each other's life styles.

"I've had to compromise with my mom and dad on some things," said Bill, who said he has been amazed at the support his parents have shown him since he entered Boys Republic . "We've reached agreements on things, like where I can smoke and the hours I can stay out."

Bill is one of 20 boys, ages 13 to 18, enrolled in the Orange County branch of the Chino-based Boys Republic. The Santa Ana branch has operated with little fanfare for more than a decade.

"Surprisingly enough, a lot of probation officers don't know there's a Boys Republic facility in Santa Ana," said the branch director, George Chance, during a recent tour of the branch.

"But when they learn of our existence, they'll often refer boys here over the main campus in Chino (which has a larger capacity: 148). We're not like the 'closed' Chino facility, where the boys live and attend school on campus and probably will be returning home at the end of their stay. Here at Santa Ana, we're an 'open' facility, where most of the boys are being prepared for 'emancipation' (from parental support and control) by having them live in a residential setting. We have a minimum of restrictions. The boys attend neighborhood schools, and they have part-time jobs in the community."

Bill and other youths assigned there usually have family problems and poor school records, Chance said.

"Most of our boys generally come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; a number of them come from disrupted homes," he explained during a walk around the compact grounds, where a basketball court and picnic table have been squeezed in for outdoor recreation.

Boys Republic youths have committed offenses that "cover the full range of delinquent activities--auto theft, burglary, vandalism and possession or sale of marijuana," Chance said. "But we don't take kids like first-degree murderers or repeated sex offenders. Occasionally, we'll take a boy who's participated in an isolated sexual assault. We don't take arsonists or boys with severe drug problems. While maybe 98% of our kids here have had experiences with drugs, we don't deal with addicts because they'd be doing all kinds of things to maintain their habit. And we can't take kids who have physical limitations like diabetes or epilepsy."

Rather than taking in the offender with a record of serious crime, Boys Republic deals in runaways, truants and boys convicted of misdemeanors or relatively minor felonies, such as car theft.

"I'm not saying that our boys are head and shoulders above the boys at Chino," said the 30-year-old Chance, who worked at Chino for 2 1/2 years. "It's just that here at Santa Ana we have the kind of boy who can handle going to a public school in the community.

"The reason our boys can handle daily contact with the public, at school or in the neighborhood, is that they have good impulse control that doesn't make them a threat to others--or themselves."

Most Stay One Year

The average stay at Boys Republic-Orange County is one year, but Chance said some probation officers keep boys in the program for as long as three years rather than return them to an unstable family or unsuitable neighborhood environment.

One benefit of the Orange County facility's small size, according to Chance, is a greater rapport between residents and the staff. (The operation employs three counselors, three tutors, two night supervisors and a cook.)

Only a fourth of the boys currently at the Santa Ana residence are from Orange County, Chance said, although in its first years of operation, half were from nearby communities.

"For whatever reasons, the number of kids from Orange County has dwindled," said Chance, who began his Boys Republic career in 1976 by serving nearly four years as a counselor at the Orange County branch.

"Every effort is made to place kids in a Boys Republic facility as close to their homes as possible. And, since Orange County is the host county for this facility, we give top priority to placements from the Orange County Probation Department."

Boys Republic-Monrovia, a day program, accommodates both boys and girls, but the four other facilities are all male. The system also operates a group home for 20 boys in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles and one for 15 youths in Pomona.

In Santa Ana, most of the boys living in the rambling, two-story, stucco residence--built half a century ago as a church--were referred by probation departments throughout California. Some, however, were transferred from the main Chino facility. One of these is Dick Stevens (a pseudonym).

Route to Independence

On a recent return visit to the Orange County Boys Republic, Dick recalled his yearlong stay there, ending last summer, during which he made the transition from an institutionalized existence to independent living. Today, he supports himself working as a grocery store janitor, has his own apartment and is taking courses at Santa Ana College.

"When I first came to Boys Republic, I couldn't read at all," said Dick, now 18. "I was in trouble all the time with my mother, or the law, because I couldn't control my temper."

Indeed, when Dick first sought to transfer from Chino to Santa Ana, his request was turned down because, during a trial visit, he punched another youth in a dispute over a slice of toast at breakfast.

"When Dick came here, he was extremely frustrated about his limitations," explained Chance, who was seated across from Dick in a conference room.

"Dick couldn't read because of a physiological--not an intellectual--defect," Chance said. "He'd been placed in special-education classes in junior and senior high school. To keep people from thinking he was dumb--and from looking down on him--he'd become very hostile. At the slightest provocation, he'd let out his aggressions."

Troubles with the law and an inability to read weren't the only problems Dick had to overcome before he could enter Boys Republic.

"I didn't get along with my mother," he said, recalling his life as the oldest of three children in a single-parent household in a working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles. "I was always going back and forth between my mother's house and friends' places."

Dick says he has little doubt about how his life would have turned out if he hadn't entered Boys Republic.

'No Place to Go'

"I'd have been out in the streets or in juvenile hall," he said. "And when I'd have turned 18, I'd have been stuck. I wouldn't have had anyplace to go. My mother wasn't going to let me back into the house."

Shuddering slightly at the scenario, Dick continued: "I was hard-headed when I went to Chino; (the counselors) showed me that they wanted to help me. But they also made me decide if I wanted to help myself. They gave me a chance, and I took it.

"They showed me that I could look out for myself without having to punch out guys. I've learned to ignore a lot of things people say. I've learned to control myself."

Just four months after he was transferred to Orange County, Dick turned 18. This ordinarily would have meant he had to leave the program, but his probation officer gave him permission to stay because he had insufficient skills to support himself on the outside, Chance said. In fact, Dick had never held a job before he came to Boys Republic.

"Because of Dick's severe reading disability, he had no job skills to speak of," Chance said. "By staying here, he was able to attend Santa Ana College, where he was able to work on his reading problems. And he underwent vocational job training as a springboard to self-sufficiency."

Thanks to the college's vocational training, Dick was able to get a job as a sheet-metal cutter, but he was soon laid off because of declining demand in the field, Chance said.

After several weeks, Dick found a temporary job making furniture crates, and in recent months, he has been permanently employed as a janitor. He says he hopes eventually to be a mechanic or construction worker.

At all Boys Republic facilities, each youth is required to participate in group counseling 90 minutes a day. "In these group counseling sessions we review the individual's progress and the need for continuing growth," Chance explained.

"There's feedback between the boys and the staff--especially about where any program adjustments have to be made. And we talk about whether we're meeting the goals we've set for each other. This is a good chance to air problems and review how we really feel about working with each other.

"Things get pretty heated at times. The counselors are very honest about whether they feel each boy is doing his assigned chores, and whether an individual is being cooperative. And counselors discuss reports of any behavioral problems the boys' schools have let us know about. The boys are told, in no uncertain terms, that continued misbehavior will jeopardize their staying here."

"In these sessions, the boys are confronted with things they'd rather not hear from their peers," Chance continued. "By what the counselors and group say in criticizing an individual boy--it's made clear to him that he's accountable for his behavior, and no excuses will be accepted."

The group sessions are reinforced by one-on-one counseling, and study halls are supervised by tutors for 2 1/2 hours, five nights a week.

Pay for Good Grades

As an extra incentive, youths are given $5 for each A received and $3 for each B, provided there isn't a D or F on the same report card. And a youngster has to do well in school to qualify for the coveted weekend pass to visit parents.

This carrot-and-stick approach seems to be working, according to records compiled by Boys Republic. In the fall of 1983, just before Chance became director of Boys Republic-Orange County, the grade-point average of the boys was 1.95 (out of a possible 4.0). It climbed to 2.4 for the January-June, 1984, period and reached 2.7 for the September-December, 1984, period.

Still, some of the boys are so deficient in academic credits that they have no hope of graduating from high school. Boys Republic tutors prepare them to take the General Educational Diploma exam (for the equivalent of a high school diploma) to improve their employment prospects.

And the boys are given "hands-on" training in good work habits through Boys Republic's placement program, which assists them in landing part-time jobs such as bagging groceries or clerking in a warehouse receiving department.

"This mix of academics and vocational training is ideal for the older boys who are looking for emancipation from their parents," Chance said. "Most of them probably will be terminated from Boys Republic when they reach 18. We don't want to push them out without their having a home or job skills."

Few Go to Jail

The five Boys Republic facilities appear to be meeting the goal of preventing teen-age boys from becoming career criminals by teaching them the skills to be self-supporting. Follow-up surveys have found that 85% of Boys Republic alumni have no later contact with the law resulting in incarceration, according to Boys Republic's statistics.

The cost of such rehabilitation is not cheap. Boys Republic charges $1,399 a month for each boy, except at the Monrovia day program, where the fee is a third that amount, Chance said. He said the boy's family seldom foots the whole bill, however. The family is charged on a sliding scale based on ability to pay. The California Department of Social Services, which coordinates the payment program, picks up the rest of the tab. (If a youth stays at Boys Republic past age 18, the Probation Department of the boy's home county pays the bill, Chance said.)

"Of all the placement programs in the state for youthful offenders," Chance said, "Boys Republic has, probably, one of the lowest fee structures. We're able to offset a large part of our operating costs because of the Della Robbia wreaths we sell at Christmastime."

Proceeds from the 62,000 wreaths sold last December covered a third of Boys Republic's $6-million operating budget, according to Boys Republic executive director Max Scott.

"Boys Republic as an organization," Chance said, "strives for the same goals we try to instill in our boys: self-sufficiency."

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