A youth advocacy group sued Orange County on Monday, alleging that its Orangewood Children's Home has held some abused and neglected children longer than legally allowed and in overcrowded conditions that can cause "severe and permanent psychological and physical harm."
The suit, filed by the Youth Law Center of San Francisco, alleges that children under 6 are being held for up to two months--twice as long as the law allows--and are being separated from their siblings and other family members.
"Basic things like staff training, subdividing living areas, assigning a specific staff member to each child or even allowing children to keep some of their own clothes and toys are overlooked," said attorney Shannan Wilber.
"We are left wondering who is the criminal here and why are we punishing our children," she said.
Because of chronic overcrowding, the suit alleges, children are sleeping on mattresses on the floor in rooms that often house more than 30 youngsters at a time.
Larry Leaman, director of the county social services agency, defended Orangewood, saying the county was doing the best it could with limited resources.
"We are disappointed that we have to spend time and money on litigation when we'd rather be using our resources to help kids," he said. "We are proud of Orangewood, and we think it does a tremendous job as an emergency shelter."
The suit was prompted in part by a Times series, published in May, chronicling problems inside the county's child welfare system and efforts by the county to improve operations.
Orange County supervisors are expected to hear from Leaman at a meeting today about a master plan to create a more efficient child welfare system.
Orangewood was designed to be a temporary shelter for children before they are placed with foster families or returned to their parents. State law prohibits children under 6 from being held in such institutions for more than 30 days.
The lawsuit, which seeks an order stopping the county from violating state law, contends that child-care staff members are not required to have any training in early childhood development or education. As a result, it asserts, they are unable to guide the children through any traumas or crises.
Carole Shauffer, an attorney with the Law Center, said Orange County is using antiquated methods to deal with small children. Shauffer said that, since 1950, child welfare workers and sociologists have agreed that children under the age of 6 should not be placed in institutions.
"I understand they feel that their hands are tied, but other counties don't use shelters. Most counties use foster homes," she said. "There are better ways to recruit and better ways to manage your situation."
Leaman said his staff is well trained but overburdened, with a growing population of children in the system. He acknowledges that Orangewood faces chronic overcrowding. In the past two months, the shelter housed about 290 children, though the capacity is 236.
The county faces a shortage of group and foster homes to ease Orangewood's load, he said. About 3,000 children go through the county's social services agency annually. The number of county licensed foster homes has changed little--612 homes in 1989 compared to 637 this year--but the number of children referred to nonprofit foster agencies has grown from 72 in 1989 to 900 this year.
Leaman said that 30% of the Orangewood children placed in foster care are returned by their foster parents or group homes because they are emotionally disturbed and unmanageable.
"The inn is full, and we want to try anything new to keep these kids from coming back," he said. "Orangewood would not be crowded if it were not for those 30% who return."