Can Kids in California Get Ahead?


Group homes are not families, but sometimes they’re the safest option.

It has been 30 years since Childhelp first started a residential program in Orange County, and while we have changed addresses as we grew, the Orange County program is stronger than ever. The three current homes in Costa Mesa are located within a mile of each other, and each can house up to six children or youth in need of 24-hour a day therapeutic supervision and intensive treatment, but who are still able to participate in community activities. These are children who may have family in Orange County for visitation, or they may be more appropriately placed in a program that’s smaller than the Childhelp residential treatment facility (the Childhelp Merv Griffin Village). Often, the Orange County Group Homes accept youth who are ready to leave the Village, but not ready to return home. They still receive the same services, but in a less restrictive environment that can help them make the sometimes difficult transition back to a family setting when they’re ready.

Diana Correa, Executive Director of Program Operations for California, oversees the Merv Griffin Village, the Childhelp Non-Public School, and both offices of the Foster Family and Adoption Agency in addition to the Orange County Group Homes.

“If you go back in time, residential care used to serve ages two and up, and the children stayed in the program for a year or two, at least,” Ms. Correa commented. “Now, no child is allowed to be referred for services before the age of six, it’s much more difficult to receive county approval to place, and the children can only be in treatment for six to twelve months. We’re still doing the same job; it’s just that the job has changed. And it’s still changing.”

“One thing I’ve noticed through the years is that the children’s behaviors are more challenging,” she noted. We are in the process of converting our Residential Treatment Programs into Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTP). An STRTP will provide short-term specialized intensive treatment and 24-hour care and supervision to children/youth. Prior to being referred to an STRTP for treatment, all children will have been assessed by their placing county, and the choice to refer them to Childhelp will have been made in a Child and Family Team Meeting, including the child, the child’s placing county social worker, the child’s family and anyone the family would like to have involved, including teachers, neighbors and family friends. The Team, along with an interagency placement committee, will have to agree that the child needs this level of care. The amount of time a child will spend in treatment will depend on the assessment of the child’s needs.

How does a child end up in a residential program?

When something has gone wrong at home, removing children from their parents is never the first course of action. Even in abusive or neglectful situations, removing the children is also traumatic, and it makes sense to try everything possible to support that family and give them the help they need, and when necessary wrap services around the children and family, without removing the children. However, safety is not negotiable, and if the abuse or neglect is severe or consistent enough that it is not safe to leave the children with their family, removing them is unavoidable. The first goal is to see if anyone in their family or their immediate circle can care for the children, and the county will start by asking the parents if there’s anyone they know who might be willing to care for their children. Often, children can live with a family member or teacher and be able to stay where they are comfortable. If no safe extended family member or family friend can care for the children, then the children are placed with a Resource Family with the hope of reunifying them with their biological family as soon as it’s safe to do so.

For the most part, families are given 18 months to meet court requirements, such as parenting classes or drug rehabilitation, based on their situation. If their parents can’t or won’t comply with their court-ordered program, then the children become available for permanent placement or adoption.

Biological parents aren’t the only ones who need treatment.

At the very least, the children have been taught by example that they aren’t important. More often, they have developed PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder) or other diagnosable conditions as a result of their experience. Removing any child from what they know is frightening for them, but removing a child who is already experiencing emotional challenges can be devastating, even when there is no other choice. Children may act out, crying or breaking things, or they may just be too depressed or upset to participate in a family. Not all children make the transition smoothly and some are so traumatized that they require intensive, 24-hour therapeutic care to help them stabilize before they can be successful. That’s when a referral is made to a STRTP like the ones we operate at the Village in Beaumont and in our Orange County Group Homes.

The goal is to keep their lives as “normal” as possible.

The Orange County Group Homes are three houses in Costa Mesa within a mile of one another. Each home looks like any other house on the block, and can accommodate up to six children. The goal is to keep their lives as “normal” as possible, and they attend the local schools and participate in a variety of activities within the community, like the library, theaters, bowling alleys, local beaches and recreation centers. Each house has a fenced yard, and a van for transportation. Two therapists split the 18 cases and visit each child in the home, while one of the two psychiatrists with the Merv Griffin Village in Beaumont, visits every home for medication evaluation and medication management for children who may need medication support.

While some of the children are planning to reunify with their family, others will need somewhere to go when they complete their treatment. Right now, there’s a shortage of certified foster homes in Orange County, but we’re actively seeking loving families who are willing to open their homes and their hearts. If you live in the Orange County area and are interested in how you can help, please visit our website. Whatever your interest, we can find a place for your heart in our program.