A year ago, Sam languished in Juvenile Hall, not getting the intense psychiatric help he needed and too severely disturbed to live in a group home.
Now, Sam (not his real name) has that help. The teen-ager is living at the Intermediate Care Facility in the City of Orange, where he receives psychiatric counseling and schooling simultaneously, along with 23 other youths who range in age from 8 through 16.
Begun in March, 1986, the program accepts only extremely disturbed young people. Most of them have bounced from foster home to foster home or have had multiple stays at Juvenile Hall. All of them know repeated failure.
The program, which also is known as the Adolescent Care Facility, was run out of part of the old Albert Sitton Home, the county's former emergency shelter for abused and abandoned children. Last year, however, the county allocated $1.6 million to construct a new building for the psychiatric care program next to Orangewood, the new county children's shelter. When the new Intermediate Care Facility opened last summer, it became the first such home in the state built especially to deal with the most seriously disturbed children.
The program is run by New Alternatives, a private, nonprofit group in San Diego that contracts with the county to care for about 24 youths at a time. State funds pay for their care, and most stay about six months.
But in the last few months, director Susan Lipman said, the program's success rate has improved. In December, for example, three children improved sufficiently to move into group homes, and a fourth went home.
"These are children who don't need to be locked up, but they are not stable enough to live in a normal environment," Lipman said. "Our job is to prepare them for that."
Most of the children in the program are referred from Orangewood or the county Probation Department, which oversees them in Juvenile Hall.
Michael Schumacher, Orange County's chief probation officer, said the Intermediate Care Facility has helped turn around many of the youths it has taken in, because it is designed to assist children with special needs. Before the program began, Schumacher said, a gap existed between "what we could do for them and what (their) special problems were. . . .
"They have taken some severely disturbed kids out of Juvenile Hall and handled them well. They have done an outstanding job . . . much better than we had done in the past."
Before the home opened, Schumacher said, these youths would have become lost in the social service system, some perhaps eventually ending up living in a state mental institution.
"These are the kids who in the past have fallen through the cracks," he said. "Now, they have a real chance and, hopefully, will get back on the right track."
Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux, who is often the one who must decide what to do with these "very damaged" children, said that before the home opened, Juvenile Hall almost resembled "a locked mental facility" for these youngsters.
Lamoreaux noted that with the program up and running now for almost two years, and the improved success rate in moving youngsters into more normal settings in recent months, the waiting list for admittance to the Intermediate Care Facility also has grown much shorter over the last year.
"Unfortunately," she said, "it still hasn't solved the problem of our very seriously disturbed children. But it's working very well, and I think it will continue to have success."