Center Has Seen Century of the Troubled Child

Times Staff Writer

The problems just won’t go away.

The troubled kids behind the headlines--of teen suicides, gang wars, fatal pipe bomb explosions, desecrations of synagogues--are growing in number. The experts say the ranks may be increasing exponentially, which is one way of saying the bad news may only get worse.

If America is to have a kinder, gentler nation, these children have not yet heeded the message--nor have their parents, the experts say.

Where do these kids end up?


Around for a Century

Many go to juvenile detention facilities or, later, to prison. But what happens to the younger kids, mere candidates for tomorrow’s bleak headlines? Many end up in residential care facilities in the hope that they won’t “blossom” into Skinheads or armed robbers or men and women who may never know a decent relationship.

One such facility--geared to helping today’s “bad kid,” tomorrow’s criminal--has been around for a century. The San Diego Center for Children began in Balboa Park in 1887 as a home for abandoned women and children. It later became an orphanage and took into its care such lost souls as Rachel Ortiz, who found a home there. Ortiz grew into an activist in Barrio Logan, a voice for change among the city’s Latinos.

The center now occupies a sprawling campus in Kearny Mesa and wields a more assertive role in ushering in its second century. It serves emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children from the ages of 4 to 12, many of whom live at the center, away from their families, for as long as two years.

Its leaders argue that its role has never been more important. If we are to be kinder and gentler, and parents aren’t doing the job, who, then, will? The center treats 82 children, 50 of whom live there 24 hours a day. The cost for residential treatment is $230 per child per day. The cost for day care--with kids commuting from home--is $153 per day. The center claims an 80% success rate, meaning those who “graduate” return home without further need for institutional care.

The center provides a coveted role in another respect.

Even though the need has never been greater, treatment for such children is becoming scarcer because of vexing economic concerns. Dr. Sheldon Zablow, a child psychiatrist who speaks highly of the center’s work, said the problem is complicated by insurance companies that have gotten increasingly tight-fisted.

Severe and Getting Worse

“They’re really cracking down,” Zablow said. “It’s really a problem in the area of what to do with troubled kids. We have all these social problems, and the insurance companies are saying, ‘We’re paying too much money for you to try to find a solution.’

“The difficulties with kids are, at the moment, severe and getting worse,” he said. “Families are suffering more and more financial stress, alcohol and drug abuse are increasing. . . . It’s tough to live in San Diego. Real estate is really expensive; it’s hard for parents to commute. Life is just harder than it used to be, and kids are at the mercy of parents.”

In the midst of financial strain, the center is better able to cope than are most private hospitals and institutions. The center receives 25% of its annual $4.2-million budget from the San Diego County Mental Health Department. Private donations and grants make up part of its funding, as does United Way.

Zablow believes that troubled children “need a lot of intensive emotional support. They need teachers, art therapy and recreation,” and the center provides it. If it can be faulted for anything, he said, it’s for taking the kind of traditional, conventional approach that a “standard-treatment” facility sometimes has trouble moving beyond.

What criteria are used in admitting a child to the center?

“Say an 8-year-old is uncontrollable at home,” Zablow said. “He’s self-destructive. The parents have difficulty setting limits and following through. Leave a child in such a situation for a sustained period of time, and he may hurt himself or someone else. A child like that needs to be put in a safe environment.”

More Staff Than Kids

Barry Bernasconi, 41, is program manager at the San Diego Center for Children. He works with a staff of 110 employees, 60 of whom are full time. That’s a ratio of about 1.5 staff members for every child. Bernasconi is well acquainted with why children end up at the center.

“It might start with the child acting out in school,” Bernasconi said. “He’s fighting, not doing his homework. He’s berating his teacher and ending up all the time in the principal’s office. His parents say they can’t change him--they have no effect at all.

“Then he does something in the community. He might set something on fire. He’s uncontrollable. . . . Then he ends up at Mesa Vista Hospital (where Zablow treats kids, many of whom suffer from drug problems) or at County Mental Health or with the Department of Social Services. Then we get the kids, usually to begin with, for six to eight months.”

Jason is one such kid. Staff members are reluctant to say why Jason was admitted, but they acknowledge he fit the criteria outlined by Bernasconi. He’s the son of a Marine father and in that sense resembles many of his peers at the center; about half come from military homes. Asked why that is, a staff member said: “Oh, you know, the absent-father syndrome . . . deployments and such.” Military insurance through CHAMPUS (Civilian Health and Medical Plan of the Uniformed Services) covers almost all of such a child’s care at the center.

Jason sat in a brightly lighted, cleverly decorated classroom, full of tall, garish pictures, a towering display cage housing dinosaurs and enough computers to keep a fleet of feisty minds occupied. Two tiny Pekingese dogs a teacher had brought in yipped in a corner. Jason was about to go home--to Camp Pendleton--and that made him happy.

“I’ve been here long enough,” he said. “It’s a good place, I’ve learned a lot, but I’d like to see home. I miss it.”

Growing Own Vegetables

Lorraine was hunched over a computer terminal, trying to decipher a video game. Outside, the kids with the greenest thumbs were tending a garden rife with vegetables, which they would be eating in an upcoming meal.

Nearby, a pair of instructors were talking a kid down from the upper reaches of a slide on the playground.

“Several months ago, the kid might have gotten violent or refused to come down,” Bernasconi said. “He would have been trying to climb the roof. But the teacher talked to him patiently , and he was willing to listen. A bond of trust has been built there, and, ultimately, that’s what the kid responded to.”

Bernasconi said many of the center’s kids suffer from years of abuse and neglect, often meaning sexual abuse and battering. A kid might end up at the center for “molesting a child down the block, or pulling a knife on a neighbor.”

“In that case, only a long-term residential program is warranted,” he said.

Many of the kids receive psychiatric care before entering the center and, once they arrive, continue to see therapists who work full time as part of the staff. Bernasconi said much of the care is focused toward structure--the one thing many of these kids never got at home.

Lag in Motor Skills

Bambi Lombardi, 30, is the manager of therapeutic activities. She’s found that many of the children lag in sensory-motor skills. She organizes soccer and running programs, as well as aikido , a martial art that emphasizes a healthier form of conflict resolution than fisticuffs.

Gene Fowler is a teacher who has worked at the center since 1966, drilling the kids on “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic” within the confines of a classroom, although his has more the charm of “Sesame Street” than the gritty realism of “Blackboard Jungle.”

What’s his secret?

“Trust,” he said. “These kids come in here very, very angry. You’ve just got to show them you love them, and you do that with trust.”

Fowler says the situation is not unlike that of the auto mechanic in the television ad who says, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” Kids who aren’t shown a little love and trust when they’re young are often incorrigible later, and that’s when the bad-news headlines appear.

Beneath the Surface

Perhaps the center’s brochure sums it up: “At first glance the children at the center seem like any others. And in many ways they are. They’re generally of average or superior intelligence.

“But, beneath their surface calm, these children all harbor severe emotional disorders that cause uncontrollable behavior. Some may be withdrawn and uncommunicative--most of them are angry, hostile and desperate.

“Coping with the most simple, everyday situations is an ordeal for the children we serve. Emotional problems disturb aspects of their lives, affecting their ability to function within the family, at school or in their community. They become trapped in a cycle of failure.

“Untreated, these children fall deeper into serious problems that affect them all their lives.

“But with help, all of these children have the potential to make a contribution to society. If they learn to feel that they belong--to feel competent and comfortable with themselves--they can succeed.

“With the center’s help, these frustrated and troubled children are being given a chance for the future.”