By the time Corona housewife Connie Wax received her 12-month-old foster daughter from the Albert Sitton Home on Friday afternoon, the number of children at Orange County's overcrowded emergency shelter dropped from a record high of 146 to a comfortable 105.
Sitton director William Steiner said the weeklong crisis in housing for infants and toddlers was subsiding because of the support from foster parents like the Riverside County mother, who read about the shelter's dilemma.
"I don't know how we did it--I guess by pulling rabbits out of the hat, but it's under control now," Steiner said Friday. The home was under a Superior Court order to reduce the number of infants in the Sitton nursery from 14 to 10--even if it meant putting them in local hospitals at a cost to the county of more than $200 a day per child.
The court ruling was the first such judicial order in the history of the Sitton home, despite past problems of overcrowding. Superior Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux issued the order after touring the facility and finding that infants were jammed into the nursery in port-a-cribs and playpens that blocked fire exits.
Since then, Steiner said, he and county social workers have been able to reduce the number of children at Sitton to 105, below its capacity of 128 and well below the record high of 146 set on Monday.
"I'm tremendously relieved we were able to comply with the court's order but not jeopardize the safety of our youngsters," Steiner said Friday. "We couldn't have done it without cooperation from all parts of the community--they come through, they always do."
It was with trepidation, though, that Wax greeted the shy little girl with light-brown hair, red plaid trousers and a white smock to match her white barrettes.
"I've never had a 1-year-old, so you'll have to talk to me," Wax anxiously told county Social Services Agency Supervisor Joseph Huley as she let him and the tiny girl into her home in Corona.
"This is all new for me--I don't know how she communicates or anything," said the 32-year-old mother of a 3-month-old son and veteran of 10 years of off-and-on foster parenting of toddlers to teen-agers.
The tot, who had barely mastered the art of walking in her new white tennis shoes, was not entirely at ease either--despite the wrapped present of a fuzzy gray and white stuffed dog.
She clung to Huley, a familiar face in a life of continual upheavals since she was taken from her mother, who is serving time in jail. Each time the social worker tried to put her down from his lap, she started to wail.
Girl Started to Relax
Gradually, as she watched a pair of copper-colored Irish Setters through a sliding glass door, and little John Wax rocking in his wind-up swing, the little girl began to relax.
When Connie Wax began spoon-feeding her mashed bananas, the child barely gave Huley a glance as he slipped out the door, before she turned back to Wax with her mouth open for another bite.
"I'm up for a challenge," said Wax, who was able to take in the child through an agreement worked out by Steiner and the Riverside County Department of Social Services, which has placed three children in the Wax home since last fall.
In all, 76 children have been released from Sitton since Monday, Steiner said.
Many were placed in emergency shelter homes with Orange County foster parents experienced in caring for the kind of troubled children who come to Sitton--those who have been abused, molested, abandoned or neglected. Many agreed to take more children than they were originally licensed for, as an emergency measure. Others, like Wax, took younger children.
Three Sitton children ranging from 6 months to 2 1/2 years were being cared for at the Florence Crittenton Home in Fullerton, where officials turned office space into a nursery for the children.
Two more babies were being cared for at COPES, a private counseling agency that works with parents to prevent child battering.
Still others have been released to the custody of relatives, opening up bed space for infants at local hospitals, Steiner said.
With a population well under maximum capacity--for the moment at least--despite 28 new arrivals, Steiner might well echo Wax's parting comment as she got acquainted with her new charge: "So far, so good," she said with a laugh.