Children’s Shelter Revising Its Rules Amid Allegations


The rules at the Orangewood Children’s Home are strict, detailed and comprehensive, covering everything from the use of playground equipment to the length of time allotted for children to choose their clothing (five minutes). Girls are not allowed to wear jewelry, except that with religious significance, and may not use the telephone without permission.

Children are forbidden to receive candy or stuffed animals from visitors, and their calls and visits may be monitored.

Those who conform are rewarded with the first choice of chores, clothes and other perks; those who do not face extended periods of isolation in their room.

Such rules have prompted some critics to compare Orangewood to Juvenile Hall or a military installation.


Now directors at Orangewood, which is the focus of an investigation by county juvenile authorities over alleged mistreatment of children, said they are revising some of the procedures used by counselors to control the behavior of their wards.

Orangewood director Robert Theemling said the changes are designed to make the rules easier for the children to understand, and are not in response to the investigation or to criticism that the system is too strict and punitive.

“Our goal is to improve the procedures so that they are more understandable and perceived by staff and kids as fair,” Theemling said. “We want the rules to help kids adjust in a difficult time and help them develop new socialization skills.”

Theemling said procedures are still under review and declined to detail changes under consideration.

The County Juvenile Justice Commission is investigating reports that children have been verbally, physically and mentally mistreated at Orangewood, which was established five years ago to replace the old Albert Sitton Home as a shelter for abused, neglected and abandoned children.

The Orange County Grand Jury is also reviewing the charges. Orangewood officials say that the allegations are unfounded.

The investigation was prompted by Dorothy Moore, a Newport Beach legal secretary who befriended two homeless children and had them placed in Orangewood after their parents allegedly abandoned them. Moore said the 11-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy told her that they were harshly treated, humiliated and had to adhere to rigid rules.

The girl also alleged that a male counselor walked into one of the girls’ rooms when they were undressed and forcibly removed her from a bathroom, injuring her hand.

Bruce Malloy, administrator of the Juvenile Justice Commission, which has responsibility for oversight of Orangewood, said the commission has completed its preliminary inquiry and probably will submit a final report next week to Presiding Juvenile Court Judge C. Robert Jameson.

Several former counselors at the facility have supported the children’s contention that they are forced to endure military-style regimentation. Two of the counselors--Dave Beck, who was fired after a year because he disagreed with superiors over treatment of children in his care, and Laura Prater, who resigned after five years--have been asked to furnish testimony for the Juvenile Justice Commission.

Beck and Prater said the strict reading of the rules generates an atmosphere in which children are constantly in fear of failing or being punished.

“There were certain girls who didn’t do or say anything, that sort of melted in, and there were others who . . . would question things and would be constantly getting into problems,” said Beck, who worked in the junior girls’ unit. “I felt that it was a lot to ask of kids who are already going through a lot of trauma.”

As described in the rule book for adolescent girls, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, some children are isolated in their rooms for up to 48 hours or restricted to sitting in a hallway under a complex grading system of rewards and punishment.

All children are given jobs and earn “tokens,” or points, which they use to buy things like makeup or with which they are expected to “buy back” lost items, such as toothbrushes or shoes.

At least one teen-ager has complained she was made to act as caretaker for another child.

One 15-year-old girl who spent a month in Orangewood two years ago said in an interview that she was made to clean and care for a retarded girl who shared her room. When she refused, “I got points marked off for the day.”

“She was 11 years old and acted as though she were 4 or 5,” the girl said. “I had to change her clothes for her every day and do her simple chores, such as making her bed. This put an extra stress on me because I now I had to get two people ready each day.”

Theemling said he is unfamiliar with the case. As a matter of policy, he said wards in Orangewood are not forced to care for other children.

Another former counselor, who still works for the Department of Social Services and asked to remain anonymous, questioned why children who enter Orangewood must automatically give up their clothing and other personal items when such familiar objects might make them feel more secure.

The attorney appointed to represent children placed at Orangewood said he, too, has voiced concerns to Orangewood authorities about the rule book.

“I felt some of the rules in reading were harsh and even cruel,” said Harold LaFlamme, an attorney paid by the county to represent all children under the care of the county. “I had never seen the rule book before, and I thought it was ludicrous to expect adolescents to digest and internalize that.”

But LaFlamme, whose investigators speak frequently with the children, also said he has heard very few complaints about the rules from the children themselves. And he said he has not observed mistreatment by counselors except in rare, isolated instances.

“In general, the people over there I have observed are very caring and sensitive to the trauma kids have gone through,” he said.

Many child abuse experts said the children who end up in Orangewood do best in a structured environment.

“It’s a complicated book, but I think it is good to set down rules and guidelines,” said William Loomis, a psychiatrist who heads the evaluation and guidance unit of the County Health Care Agency. The unit provides counseling and treatment for children at Orangewood.

“Some things might seem punitive to the casual observer, but in most cases they are meant to prevent the kids from hurting themselves or others.”

Susan Davidson, executive director of the Westminster-based Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, said the rules imposed at Orangewood do not seem overly harsh and are similar to guidelines used at other treatment facilities.

“What I’m seeing is a lack of money in the system,” she said during an interview at which she was shown the Orangewood rule book for girls. “If there were enough staff to take care of kids, you would not need to have such stringent rules.”

Davidson also said studies have shown that “boundaries and defined activities do relate to caring.”

“One of the things that happens with abused kids is a huge sense of paranoia,” she said, explaining her own feelings as an abused child. “These kids never know when something is going to happen to them and are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. One of the nicest things you can do for us is to tell us what to expect and what the rules are. That way if I screw up, I can only be mad at my own behavior.”

Davidson and Loomis also noted that many children enter Orangewood with severe emotional problems that lead them to destructive behavior.

“Ten years ago I would have believed that you take anyone in pain and hold them and rock them,” Davidson said. “But there is a difference with a 13-year-old who, while clearly abused, has developed self-protective measures and calls you names or shoots you if you hug them. Kinder and gentler is not always the answer.”