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New Alternatives Takes Over Facility for Abused Children

Times Staff Writer

When Serafina Colombani opened the Sunburst Place residential care facility for abused children in 1981, it was the only facility of its kind in Imperial Beach. In 1983, she opened another Imperial Beach facility, Morningstar Place, and was on her way to taking care of abused and abandoned children the way she dreamed it should be done.

A year later, reality had set in. Authorities at the county’s Department of Social Services tired of Colombani’s penchant for turning down children who she thought would upset the balance of her programs. And without children filling the 12 beds in Sunburst Place, Colombani couldn’t afford to keep the building open.

“She came into town with a great dream,” said Michael Bruich, director of New Alternatives, a child care agency that is taking over Sunburst Place. “She had a real big heart and she had some skills, but she came in here and thought you could put 12 kids together in here and love ‘em well. And you can’t. It takes a lot more.”

Colombani thought she had more. Her experience training primary and secondary school teachers at Sacramento State University and in the Chula Vista school system had helped her devise a plan to treat abused, abandoned and neglected children from 4 to 12 years old. At the Imperial Beach facilities, she chose her staff by their willingness to follow her teaching philosophy, rather than by their professional degrees. She used music and art therapy and insisted on avoiding labels such as “good” and “bad” with the children.

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Morningstar Place, with six beds, remains open.

The problem her facilities had was a political struggle with Social Services authorities, Colombani said.

“You get caught in the middle between those who have the power to order you what to do and those who have the money,” she said. “The red tape comes first.”

Oksana Smith, an institutions program specialist for the county, said the main problem was Colombani’s tendency to turn away the most emotionally disturbed children. Smith said she welcomes the chance to put an effective program in the area, because there is room for less than half the abused children that must be institutionalized in San Diego County.

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If Colombani couldn’t work with Social Services, New Alternatives could. With a $62,000 contribution from Citicorp, the agency put a down payment on the Sunburst Place building and on another San Diego site housing a nine-bed emergency facility for abused boys. The agency celebrated the two additions to its eight San Diego facilities Tuesday with a dedication ceremony and open house at the old Sunburst Place, 1140 12th St.

“The kids are jazzed--they’re very excited,” said Julie Clift, 26, who lived in a residential care facility and with foster parents before taking a job with New Alternatives. “If my home got closed down, I would have been devastated, because I was deserted so many times.”


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