Calls Pour In as Public Responds to Crisis at County's Children's Shelter

Times Staff Writer

Telephones were "ringing off the hook" at the Albert Sitton Home with people calling from as far away as Riverside and Los Angeles counties Tuesday, offering to take in babies from Orange County's overcrowded emergency shelter for children, director William Steiner said.

Although most of the callers were not licensed to be foster parents, a Corona housewife seemed a good candidate to help the Sitton home meet a Superior Court order to reduce its infant population.

"I was taking care of two foster children who left on Friday, and I thought I'd take a break for a while," said 32-year-old Connie Wax, who, with her 36-year-old account manager husband, is licensed by Riverside County to care for up to two foster children in their suburban, four-bedroom Corona home.

"Then I opened up the newspaper this morning and read the article about how overcrowded things were in Orange County, and I thought, 'I've never taken care of babies before,' but since I have a 3-month-old son, I already have everything needed for another child--all the equipment, everything," Wax said.

"I've never taken in an infant before; I just have my own and I know he's a pure joy to take care of. All they need is a lot of holding, loving, and to be cleaned and fed," she said.

"If we can, we will use the (Wax's) home," Steiner said. "The other phone calls we're referring to our licensing division."

Order Obeyed

In the meantime, Steiner said he was able to obey Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux's Monday order to reduce the nursery population from 14 to 10 infants by midnight Tuesday.

"Two new shelter families made themselves available to us and, for a couple of families, we were able to adjust their licensing age range to take older babies," Steiner said.

Three more babies were transferred to the Florence Crittenton Home in Fullerton under special arrangements made Tuesday afternoon. The county will pay $68.58 a day for each child, Steiner said.

"We're extremely grateful for this assistance," he said. "They (Crittenton officials) are going out of their way for us. This will take me down right now to seven babies, with the Sheriff's Department scheduled to bring one more in. But who knows what will happen tomorrow? Sometimes, it's like shoveling sand upstream."

An All-Time High

The number of abused, neglected and abandoned children placed at the county shelter in the City of Orange soared to an all-time high of 146 Monday, prompting Lamoreaux to inspect the facility the same afternoon.

When Lamoreaux saw 14 cribs and playpens blocking fire exits in a tiny nursery designed for 10, she ordered county Social Service Agency Director Larry Leaman to place babies in hospital nurseries, if necessary, to end overcrowding.

Crowding among toddlers between the ages of 2 and 5 had already prompted Lamoreaux to authorize temporary use of bed space in a day room and wings vacated when older children moved into Orangewood, a new emergency shelter under construction next door.

Steiner said Tuesday's population dropped below 142 children with the moves into Crittenton and emergency foster homes. Two infants who have been awaiting bed space at Sitton will remain at Childrens Hospital of Orange County and the UCI Medical Center at least another day until the situation stabilizes, Steiner said.

Hope for Future

Steiner said it is hoped that room for expansion at Orangewood will prevent a reoccurrence of the problems that have plagued Sitton.

In the meantime, Steiner is hoping to boost his pool of 94 emergency shelter foster homes with people calling in response to the current crisis. Most were being referred Tuesday to the county Social Services Agency foster home licensing division, which received an additional eight telephone inquiries.

Getting a foster home license can take up to four months, but county officials said most applications are processed within 60 to 90 days.

Applicants must submit to a fingerprint check for criminal records, the home must meet health and safety standards, and applicants are required to have some training or experience in parenting or child care, said Gail Magee, supervisor of foster care licensing for Orange County.

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