A Mother Discovers the System Doesn't Work for Runaways

Times Staff Writer

Carmen Ponce had had it, once again, with her mother. And this time her mother was fed up, too.

Carmen, 14--a veteran of police stations, shelters, hospitals and boyfriends--had run away from her mother's apartment in Orange for maybe the dozenth time. So in September, her mother, Carol, gave away her daughter's bedroom furniture and threw out her clothes.

Then she marched into an Orange police station and begged authorities to let her officially abandon her daughter. They refused.

"Carmen needs help," said Ponce, 35, who said she is a partner in a house-cleaning business. "She needs to be made a ward of the court. The county needs to get involved and help her, and they won't do it."

Because authorities were unable to find evidence that Carmen had broken any laws, or that she had been neglected or abused, until recently she simply fell through the cracks, Ponce said.

The cracks in the system are wide indeed for runaway children who are not criminals, mentally ill or victimized, according to county authorities who appear to be as frustrated as Ponce.

The typical example is "the child you can't control, who stays out late, steals from you and others, smokes dope, wears spikes in their hair and runs around with evil companions," said Harold La Flamme, an Orange County attorney specializing in juvenile law.

"It's not in the law for us to serve these kids," said Bob Theemling, deputy director of Children's Services for the Orange County Social Services Agency.

Until 1976, children who were truants or found to be incorrigible could be made wards of the court. That year, the Legislature essentially removed such status offenders from the jurisdiction of the courts and, to keep them away from juveniles who had committed crimes, prevented them from being locked up.

There are now no government-operated programs specifically designed for incorrigible children in the state, said Gene Howard, director of Children's Services for the county Social Services Agency.

Said John Conley, head of the juvenile branch of the Orange County district attorney's office: "It seems the system's attitude at the present time is: Unless your kid's done something criminal, it's your problem, not society's problem and not the taxpayer's problem."

Estimates of the number of runaways and homeless children in Orange County range from 15,000 to 30,000. Unlike in Los Angeles, where they sleep in burned-out buildings, Orange County street kids tend to congregate in malls and pizza parlors and sleep with acquaintances in apartments, motels and homes, authorities said.

In Los Angeles, however, Roosevelt Dorn is one Juvenile Court judge who will lock out-of-control children in Juvenile Hall by finding them in contempt of court.

"Usually if they have to go to Juvenile Hall for a few days--this gets the minor's attention," he said. In addition, he said, he often orders parents to attend a series of parental guidance classes.

"We're talking about a parent who wants to be helpful. Unless the law is used, what does a parent do? Watch the child go down the drain?" Without the law, he said, "there's no place for parents to go."

Similarly, social services officials say they are not equipped under current law to accept children who simply cannot get along with their parents, though there is provision for children who are neglected or abused.

"The unfortunate thing is, to enter in the system a child has to be identified as a victim, and parents have to be identified as perpetrators . . . rightly or wrongly," Theemling said.

Sometimes runaways wind up at Orangewood, the county's shelter for abused and neglected children. If they do not bolt from the unlocked facility, many end up back with their families or with the absent parent in a divorce situation. Others may be released to friends, foster or group homes or, if they are psychotic, placed in mental institutions.

Being in the system is "not necessarily that wonderful a thing," La Flamme said.

Some minors drift into the Juvenile Court system because there is no other system for them, authorities said.

"When you talk runaway, 30% end up in prostitution," said Lois Lee, director of Children of the Night, a Hollywood-based organization set up to help teen-age prostitutes. Those who don't are prone to panhandling, dope dealing, petty theft or even murder, she said. "A lot go home."

Carmen Ponce has been on the streets since Oct. 9. Once in a while, her mother receives a call or manages to track her down through friends and rumors. She survives, her mother said, by borrowing money and clothes from friends.

Ponce said she investigated a private program for parental guidance, Back In Control, that is based in Orange. But she said that she and Carmen have already been through counseling with public and private social workers and that none of it has been helpful.

Carmen's parents divorced when she was 3. Her father lives in New York.

Until Carmen was 12, she was a "good-hearted kid," said Ponce, who also has two younger children. "She would go through periods of being bad and good like most kids." She disciplined her with restrictions and occasionally spanking, she said.

But two years ago, the mother said, Carmen began running away and becoming progressively defiant.

Ponce herself ran away from her father and stepmother and was on her own at 16, she said. "I had a rough life, but I've never done the things my daughter has done at 14," she said. "She's a 14-year-old girl who has done everything in her life except die."

The last time Carmen ran away, Ponce said, she checked herself into UCI Medical Center for psychiatric examination. When she was released, Ponce said, she refused to pick up Carmen, thereby qualifying her as a neglected child eligible for Orangewood.

She was admitted there but ran away a few days later, Ponce said.

In Carmen's absence, a Juvenile Court hearing was held and a warrant was issued for her arrest, Ponce said.

At the hearing, there were allegations that Carmen had been "beaten up by strangers, taken illegal drugs and involved in illicit sex, all while in the care and protection of (her) mother, an alleged recovering alcoholic," Ponce said, reading from a court document. The allegations, while factual, are distorted, Ponce said, because the alleged incidents occurred while Carmen was a runaway.

Carmen is still on the streets somewhere, her mother said Friday. The warrant was served, and Carmen was taken back to Orangewood, from where she ran away again, her mother said. "Now we're back to step one."

Ponce said she doesn't know whether she still loves her daughter. She said she doesn't worry anymore.

"I can't worry about her. I can't. She's doing this knowingly, all on her own.

"She likes being free--she'll fight them all the way."

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