At age 15, Michelle felt like a prisoner in her own home. Forced to do the housework and constantly baby-sitting her younger brothers and sisters, she had little time to socialize with friends her own age, so she felt trapped and unwanted.
And with her parents often telling her that she was overweight and ugly, she withdrew into a world of self-hatred.
“It was really bad for a while because I sort of believed what they were saying,” said the La Habra teen-ager, who is now 17. “But the day my mother hit me, I realized it was abuse, so I reported it.”
When she went to the police with her complaints, a lengthy legal process was put in motion that culminated in Michelle’s being taken out of the care of her parents. Now, she lives at the Emancipation Training Center in Anaheim, the county’s only long-term shelter for abused teens that is in danger of closing.
The training center is expected to be one casualty of the budget crunch faced by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, which is expected to enact severe cost-cutting measures at its meeting today. A faltering local economy and cutbacks in state funding have left the board gasping for funds.
The Emancipation Training Center along with four other temporary shelters for battered and abused young people stand to lose about $600,000 a year. Such a loss of funds would necessitate cutbacks in services, program reorganizations and even possible closures.
“It is a shame because you know who really gets hurt the most when something like this happens,” said Audrey Bacon, a counselor at the Emancipation Training Center. “The kids suffer. We get about 10 to 12 phone calls a day asking for our services. Where do they call now?”
According to Michelle: “Living here has done a lot for me by showing me what I have to offer--what’s good about me and what I can improve on. I now know a little more of what it takes to make it in this world on my own. I don’t know what I would have done if (the center) hadn’t existed.”
Each teen-ager is recommended to the program by social workers or other government agencies and is required to have a full-time job within two weeks after arrival.
“We have kids here that have basically fallen through the cracks,” said Barbara Clippinger, executive director of the center. “They are not fully into the system yet and they’ve committed no crime--(they’re) just unwanted or abused.”
The five programs were initially notified in August that funding would stop in four weeks, but after a public outcry, officials reconsidered and extended funding until January.
Programs such as the Casa Youth Shelter in Los Alamitos said that with half of their budget gone, they will increase their fund-raising efforts, lobby for donations from businesses and consider reducing the number of beds available for runaways.
“The last thing we want to do is close our doors, so we are doing whatever possible to avoid that,” said Luciann Maulhardt, executive director of Casa. “We really don’t want to decrease the number of beds because there is a need for more beds, not less. But we have to make considerable changes to help us through this.”
Administrators at the Amparo House in Garden Grove, an eight-bed facility that cares for runaways, say they are still in the process of deciding the home’s fate.
“We are currently making those decisions now,” said Kevin Meehan, executive director. " . . . We have been exploring other options for a while, but it’s still unclear what our next step will be.”
The Odyssey Runaway Youth Shelter in Anaheim, which also provides a two-week shelter for runaways, receives most of its funds from the federal government, but it will lose a quarter of its fiscal-year funding with the budget cuts.
Because the Emancipation Training Center is the only one of the five that receives all of its funding from the county, it is the only one facing the immediate possibility of closing in a few weeks.
Young people at the center are taught various skills, including budgeting money, cooking meals and finding and keeping a job. The skills are intended to help them qualify for “emancipation privileges,” which the courts can grant to certain teen-agers 14 or older who have demonstrated independence.
At the end of six months, the program helps them move into their own apartment and they are provided with follow-up counseling.
“For me, this is the first time in a while that I’ve lived an organized life, " said Anna, 17, an ex-gang member and heroin user from Santa Ana who also lives at the center.
“I was living on my own before this, but I was surviving the illegal way and I didn’t want it like that,” the tall teen-ager said, as she stirred a pot of spaghetti sauce for the evening meal. “This way, I am not scared about what I am doing because I know I always have somewhere to go.”
Clippinger said most of the teen-agers had written letters to the Board of Supervisors, stressing the need for the program. She said program administrators and supporters are working to find alternate funding from major corporations. But with only a few weeks until the new year, officials at the center are less than optimistic about its survival.
“Up until recently, I’d been somewhat hopeful that something might happen to save the program,” Clippinger said. “But more and more, I really don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”