The Ronald McDonald House in Orange County has redefined which families of critically ill children qualify for its temporary housing, prompting protests from two mothers it has rebuffed.
McDonald House officials said they changed the policy because of growing demand for the 21 rooms.
"We empathize with any family who has a child with a serious illness," said Jon Meyers, chief executive for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern California, in a written statement. "We would love to serve everyone; however, the demand exceeds the number of rooms we have available."
Two single mothers of disabled boys who have stayed at this or other McDonald houses in the past were turned away from the Orange facility this month because they were referred by the Eureca Institute in Anaheim. Eureca provides intensive, monthlong therapy for children with neuromuscular disabilities. Patients spend 4 1/2 hours a day at the facility.
Under the new policy, Ronald McDonald House said it "is not able to accommodate referrals from physicians in private practice, outpatient clinics, families visiting children placed in long-term rehabilitation or subacute care facilities."
Under those guidelines, officials say, Eureca no longer qualifies for referring families to McDonald because it provides long-term rehabilitation.
"I'm absolutely devastated," said Theresa Lindhardt of El Cajon, whose 4-year-old son, Trenton, was born with cerebral palsy.
In October 2001 and June 2002, Lindhardt said, she and Trenton stayed at the McDonald House in Orange while he was being treated at Eureca.
Fabiola Armitage brought her 13-year-old son, Jason, to Eureca from Jacksonville, Fla., for treatment of the quadriplegia he suffered as a result of a soccer injury six years ago.
Armitage said they have stayed in McDonald Houses in Birmingham, Ala., and Orlando, St. Petersburg and Gainesville, Fla. "This is the only time we've had a problem," she said. "We just think it's very unfair, and the public would be outraged they're turning down children in need of their services."
There are 234 McDonald Houses around the world. Families staying there are asked to pay $5 to $20 per day, but they can stay free of charge if necessary. A family's economic status makes no difference.
Each McDonald House is a nonprofit corporation. Ronald McDonald House Charities, in Oakbrook, Ill., provides a seed grant to help build a house. Each house raises about 90% of its operating expenses, and the rest comes from McDonald-connected sources, Meyers said.
According to the Web site of Ronald McDonald House Charities, "The idea behind Ronald McDonald House is simple: provide a 'home-away-from-home' for families of seriously ill children who are receiving treatment at nearby hospitals."
Juana Sanchez, western states manager for Ronald McDonald houses, said each house can set its own more stringent guidelines.
The board of directors of the Orange County Ronald McDonald House changed its policy in July, and the change took effect in October.
The policy is to accept families only from Children's Hospital of Orange County, UCI Medical Center in Orange, Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Western Medical Center-Anaheim and Anaheim Memorial Medical Center.
The house said it would accept referrals from other hospitals case by case.
The house sent a letter in July to seven rehabilitation facilities, including the Eureca Institute, explaining the new policy.
"So we gave them time to let families who may have stayed at the house an opportunity to figure out whether they wanted to seek treatment at Eureca," said Deborah Levy, executive director of the Orange County Ronald McDonald House.
To stay at the house, Levy said, families must be referred by a social worker, nurse or doctor. "They know whether, medically speaking, a family fits the criteria for staying at a Ronald McDonald House," she said. "A child having their appendix out wouldn't fit into that criteria. However, a child who suffered a gunshot wound and is in critical condition may."
Meyers said other McDonald houses across the country have instituted similar policies.
Grace Wu, Eureca's director, said that before her institute was established three years ago, McDonald House officials guaranteed it a slot.
But Susan Marty, the house manager, said she told Wu at that time that she would not guarantee her a slot but that Eureca could send one referral a month in case there was an opening.
"We don't take reservations," Marty said. "We're not a hotel. Families with an acutely ill child don't have the luxury of scheduling a child's trip to the ICU."
Eureca put a notice on its Web site and on a brochure saying patients' families could apply to stay at the McDonald House. Officials at the house told Eureca to delete the notices.
Levy said the families of Eureca patients have stayed for a month, while most stays are six to 10 days.
Since the policy change, Eureca families have found discounted lodging in Anaheim hotels, though Lindhardt also has been commuting the 1 1/2 to two hours from El Cajon.
"I just think this is terrible, and I'm so hurt by this thing," Lindhardt said.