Overcrowding Reaches Record High : County Ordered to Care for Fewer Infants at Sitton

Times Staff Writer

As overcrowding in Orange County's emergency shelter for children soared to an all-time high, a Superior Court judge Monday ordered the county to reduce by nearly 30% the number of infants in the Albert Sitton Home immediately.

The order from Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux, delivered by marshal Monday afternoon to county Social Services Agency Director Larry Leaman, directed the county to find alternate shelter for four of 14 infants in Sitton's nursery, which has a capacity for 10 babies under 2 years of age.

The county-run shelter in the City of Orange housed 35 children between the ages of 2 and 5 Monday in facilities designed for 18. On March 4, Lamoreaux authorized the use of temporary bed space in a day room and in wings vacated when older youngsters moved into Orangewood, a new emergency shelter being built next door.

Meanwhile, Orange County faces possible state sanctions for chronic overcrowding at nearby Juvenile Hall, county officials said. On Monday, 353 juvenile defendants were housed at the hall--39 more than its capacity of 314.

Representatives of the California Youth Authority are scheduled to meet with Probation Department officials Thursday to discuss continued overcrowding at the hall. If juvenile detention facilities exceed capacity for more than 20 days in a row, they are subject to state decertification, state and county officials said.

Chief Deputy Probation Officer Rex Castellaw said daily averages at the hall have ranged from 325 to 330 since early January, with the exception of a two-week respite in February.

Responding to Judge Lamoreaux's order, Sitton Director William Steiner said Monday he was negotiating with officials at the Florence Crittendon Home in Fullerton to take four infants into their nursery this morning. Two more babies awaiting beds at Sitton will stay at Childrens Hospital of Orange County and UCI Medical Center, Steiner said.

Lamoreaux said Monday she issued the order to Leaman to reduce the shelter's population "in any way feasible" after touring the strained facility Monday afternoon. She ordered the county to pay for outside care for the infants.

"The infants are what the judge was most concerned about," Steiner said. "Because if there were any sort of fire, it would be almost impossible to evacuate with port-a-cribs and playpens from one end of the nursery to the other."

"The kids were being properly taken care of over there," Lamoreaux said. "But the staff was working 12 to 14 hours a day to do it."

History of Overcrowding

The county-run shelter for abandoned, neglected or abused children, which has a history of overcrowding, reached a 26-year record high population of 146 children Monday, Steiner said. With new cottages gradually becoming available at Orangewood, Steiner said the shelter's capacity has increased and is now at 128 beds.

When the $7.5-million Orangewood is completed within 90 days, there will be beds for 168 children. Until then, the special needs of infants and toddlers can only be accommodated in the cramped quarters at Sitton, Steiner said.

"There are 10 new beds being delivered today, and my secretary and I are moving out of our offices so the kids can have them today," Steiner said. "It's like a shell game."

If the Crittendon home is able to take the current overflow from the Sitton nursery, Steiner said they would be the last available spaces for infants in group or foster homes he has been able to locate in the Southland. Other infants will have to be housed in costly hospital nurseries.

"Any infant brought into Sitton by a police officer cannot be refused," Steiner said. "And that could again put us into a difficult position trying to meet the judge's order and hold down our population."

Foster Homes Decrease

Leaman and county officials blamed the overcrowding on a 12% increase in children coming into the county shelter last year. At the same time, available foster homes in Orange County decreased by 8.5% despite massive recruitment drives. Over the last two years, the number of foster homes available to the county declined from 756 in December, 1982, to 633 in December, 1984, county foster home coordinator Barbara Labitzke said.

Steiner said of those 633 homes, only 94 are available for short-term foster care--nowhere near enough to meet the need. More than 700 children were cared for in those homes last year for anywhere from two days to a month. By comparison, as of Monday, he said 504 children have been admitted to Sitton since Jan. 1.

Of the 76 children brought in last week, Steiner said 18 had been physically abused; 17 had been sexually molested, including one child suffering from gonorrhea; 13 had been neglected (2 of these were taken from parents because their families lived in cars); 3 were in the shelter because their parents had been arrested; 5 had been abandoned; 2 were lost; 2 had been kidnaped, and 16 had been returned from placement with relatives or in foster or group homes.

"The answer is to find more foster homes and create more child abuse prevention programs," Steiner said. "Our preference is to place children in the community, in the most normal, individual setting possible."

Appeal Issued

County officials issued an appeal Monday for foster families. Those interested in applying for the program are asked to call the county Social Services Agency foster home licensing division at 834-2168.

Easing overcrowding at Juvenile Hall may be dependent on opening up space at the Sitton shelter once Orangewood is completed. Although current county plans call for the shelter to be demolished and a new Juvenile Court erected on the site, Chief Probation Officer Michael Schumacher is negotiating for temporary use of the buildings.

The county Health Care Agency has also been eying the site for an interim mental health care facility for children.

Schumacher said it may be possible for both agencies to use the facility temporarily until construction of a new courthouse. He said there are also plans to build a second juvenile hall facility near the building.

In the meantime, Castellaw said the Probation Department is also planning to expand programs at two juvenile detention camps.

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