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A Helping Hand Meets Children’s Special Needs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Wax is a regular contributor to Valley View</i>

In 1975, Evan Berens came to the New School for Child Development in Van Nuys primarily because of speech and hearing problems. His mother felt that he didn’t really fit into the special education classes then available in the public schools.

“There was no other school that met his needs,” said his mother, Roberta Berens of Encino. “He needed a multidisciplinary approach, and the public school didn’t have it.”

Since then, Evan, now 20 and a year away from graduation, said he learned more than just his ABCs.

“This school helped me with my speech and taught me how to be responsible in the outside world,” he said. “It helped me learn to be a good part of society.”

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Although there are other special education facilities in the San Fernando Valley, the New School is unusual because of the scope of its programs.

Founded in 1975 by Barbara Firestone, the New School is one component of the HELP Group, a nonprofit amalgamation of agencies that deal with children who have special needs. HELP is an acronym for Housing, Education, Learning and Psychological Services.

The programs run by HELP include:

* The Los Angeles Center for Therapy and Education (which actually began in 1953 as a small speech and learning center), with outpatient and day treatment for psychological, psychiatric and counseling programs, as well as speech and hearing disabilities.

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* The New School, which Firestone said is one of the largest accredited private special education schools in the state.

* Project Six, 10 group homes in the Valley for children and adolescents, started in 1981.

* Southern California Living Centers, a 2-year-old residential program for young adults 18 to 25.

“HELP is a family of agencies,” said Firestone, who received her doctorate in special education from USC and is president and chief executive officer of the HELP Group. “We serve in lots of areas--abused, abandoned and neglected children, autism, learning and language disabilities, mental retardation, emotional problems.”

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There are about 190 students in the New School, with a staff of about 250 and a student-teacher ratio of about 12 to 1. Students are referred by public schools, the county Department of Mental Health, the county Department of Children’s Services, private counselors and others.

“It’s a great school,” said Eugene Ferkich, coordinator of student services in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s division of special education, which has been referring students there for about a dozen years. “The staff seems very committed to the children. They are interested in teaching curriculum and not just behavior modification.”

Emma Rojo of Van Nuys said that just looking at her son Adam’s school pictures shows the difference the New School made for him. His picture from first grade shows a sad-looking 6-year-old. In second grade, he flashes a small, toothy grin, but by the third grade, he practically beams, with a smile so big that it puffs out his cheeks.

“He’s come a long way,” said Rojo, explaining that Adam was referred to the New School by the Beverly Hills Unified School District when his “acting out” developed dangerous turns, such as jumping out a second-floor window and running into traffic. He was put in special education classes, given the drug Ritalin to control his attention deficit disorder and spent six weeks hospitalized at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.

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At the New School, Rojo said, “Adam gets one-on-one therapy three times a week, which has really helped with his emotional problems. His work and attitude have been improving.”

The HELP Group has an annual operating budget of $8 million, funded by a variety of state and private tuition money, plus donations. There have some generous sponsors, including Los Angeles attorney and philanthropist Richard Riordan, who recently donated computers, and the Michael Milken family. (Before Milken was imprisoned in the Drexel Burnham Lambert junk bond scandal, he was an active volunteer at the school.) Actress Kristy McNichol is host at a tennis tournament in October and helps entertain at the school’s annual spring fund-raising luncheon, which last year netted more than $142,000.

Most of the HELP Group facilities are tightly packed on four acres of land across from Valley College. The main building, with its clean, bright hallways and classrooms, also boasts an auditorium and new computer lab, where students learn reading, and educational and vocational skills such as word processing and writing a business letter.

Vocational skills are emphasized everywhere--in a wood shop, where students last year made toys to donate to Toys for Tots, or in a model “apartment” where students learn cooking, cleaning and other independent living skills. There is a swimming pool, a vegetable garden and a tiny lawn watered by a sprinkler system installed by students. An arts program offers painting, drama and music, and a student council lets youngsters practice leadership skills.

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Field trips are taken so that students can apply what they learn in school. The trips are usually simple ones, such as going across the street to learn how to recognize traffic signs or to the supermarket to learn about shopping. Once a year, however, a more extensive program furnishes selected students a trip to Washington to study government.

“This is the theory part,” said clinical director Dennis Laurents, gesturing around a classroom where walls are covered with pictures of various traffic signs and a boy sits counting play money. “The rest of the world is the lab.”

Sometimes children, maybe because of abuse or because a parent can’t care for a child, cannot live at home. For these youngsters, a group home may be their best alternative.

HELP’s Project Six has 10 group homes scattered throughout the Valley. Divided according to age, sex and disability, six youngsters live two to a bedroom, with two staff members on duty 24 hours, in rotating shifts.

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“We try to create as normal an environment as possible,” Firestone said. “We try to make it as much like a family structure as possible. For every six who come in, there are at least 60 others who need it.”

For 18-year-old Heather, living in a group home “gave her a normal life,” said her mother, Linda, who asked that her last name not be used. “She needs to live in the real world, not in an adolescent hospital.”

Depressed to the point of attempting suicide and exhibiting impulsive behavior, Heather had been in two psychiatric hospitals, a shelter for runaways and various schools before she got to the HELP Group, referred there by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I had been looking for someplace for Heather for a long time,” said Linda, noting that the other schools and hospitals managed some of Heather’s behavioral problems, but not the emotional ones. At HELP Group, Linda said, there is individual and family counseling, something that “the whole family needed to get through this.”

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Heather, looking shy in a white suit trimmed with gold buttons, her blond hair pulled straight back and wearing no makeup, held her mom’s hand as she spoke softly of how much better life is getting. She is attending junior college, she said, and is working in a preschool.

In October, 1989, with a grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, HELP opened the Southern California Living Centers, a residential program for young adults with special needs. The center uses vocational, psychological and educational training to teach residents how to live on their own. Two houses are for the developmentally disabled and two for those with emotional problems.

This project is important, Firestone said, because “youngsters who get to be 18 are no longer eligible for lots of government services, but they still need help. These are the kids who would be at high risk for homelessness.”

Every year, Firestone said sadly, the need for special education programs grows.

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“More children are being identified today as abused,” Laurents added. “They are experiencing more stress today. Families are more fragmented. There is more drug abuse, more homelessness. We’re seeing more poor maternal nutrition, more poor prenatal care. More often, special needs children have both parents working.

“The special needs child can drain a family,” he said. “The family needs support, too.”

Of course, HELP Group cannot be all things to all people, and not everyone has had good experiences there.

One mother who pulled her child out of the New School after six months said one of her chief complaints was that she could never seem to talk to anyone there about her daughter’s problems, even when school doctors wanted to put the girl on medication.

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Her daughter has had behavior problems from infancy and has been in several special education programs. The New School, she said, “takes children who are difficult to handle. There are not that many places that provide this service. But I felt they didn’t really care for the kids. I didn’t feel they were all that wonderful.”

“They paint a pretty picture, but it’s not always so pretty there,” complained another mother whose son was at the New School for three years and is now in another residential program. She said she felt that staff members forced medication on children and were never willing to discuss problems with parents.

“But parents say they are afraid to say anything because if they kick your child out, there’s no place else to go.”

Firestone agreed that the program is not right for everyone. Among the problems the school does not handle, Firestone said, are drug rehabilitation and juvenile delinquency, or children who are medically fragile, severely physically handicapped or who need psychiatric hospitalization. In those cases, she said, the staff makes referrals.

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The problem for most parents, Laurents and Firestone agreed, is that they don’t know where to go for help.

“When people become desperate is when it seems the world is most unresponsive,” Laurents said.


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