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Cider House Dreams

For some people, charity begins someplace else -- anywhere but home. As children, Joy Warren and Roberta Arredondo found it at San Diego County's Health and Human Services Agency when their parents could not properly care for them. The agency rescued Warren and her two sisters from a condemned house with drug abusers; Arredondo was taken from a chaotic household with a dying mother and violent father. While Warren and her sisters lived together for three years with the same foster family, Arredondo was separated from her siblings and assigned to more than 27 different places, including families, group homes, emergency shelters, and treatment centers.

Now that they're adults, Arredondo, 21, and Warren, 26, are engaged in a debate about living conditions for San Diego County's 7000 abused, neglected, and abandoned children. Despite a common background of broken homes, Arredondo and Warren hold different opinions about the kind of place where charity should begin.

On May 29, the county is scheduled to buy the Seventh Day Adventist boarding school in San Pasqual Valley near Escondido for $15.5 million. Another $9 million will be spent converting the now-empty campus to a foster-care residence and school for 250 teenagers. Much of the project depends on private donations, such as the $5 million pledged by the charitable foundation of Metabolife International Inc., maker of a diet supplement that is controversial because it contains a key ingredient of methamphetamine. Metabolife has also donated money to local politicians and political causes.

Many child-welfare experts, with Warren on their side, oppose creating what they say is an archaic institution: an orphanage. They say the money should be spent on supporting and retaining what works best for children: families. They point to last month's riot at Polinsky Center in San Diego as exemplifying why large living facilities are a step backward: inevitably, they become overcrowded and understaffed. Financed by private donations and government funds, the $14 million Polinsky Center opened in 1994 with the capacity to house 175 children temporarily on an emergency basis. It now accommodates 200 to 230 children, some of whom live there months at a time.

"This is a great crossroads for San Diego's children," said Tania L. Bowman of Escondido, a lawyer for the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit children's advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. "We can continue warehousing children or seek a new paradigm that brings families and neighborhoods together to solve the problem. Any credible child advocate will tell you that large institutions don't work." Bowman says the San Pasqual foster-care project would violate group-living standards suggested by the Child Welfare League of America, the American Bar Association, and the American Correctional Association.

San Diego County bureaucrats and politicians, with Arredondo serving on an advisory panel of current and former foster children, say San Pasqual Academy will be different. County Supervisor Greg Cox says it has the potential to become a national role model of helping teenagers who can't adapt to foster families -- not necessarily because they have emotional problems but simply because they are older. Involvement of local businesses and colleges that would provide a variety of amenities -- ranging from computer expertise to mentoring programs -- hold the promise of making San Pasqual Academy a "cutting edge" or "state of the art" facility, he said, echoing other supervisors and agency officials.

"I understand the vision for San Pasqual, but I'm philosophically opposed to it," said Patty Boles, a foster parent in Vista and president of the North San Diego County Foster Parents Association. "I don't care how many services you offer or how pretty you make the institution. It's not a family. My concern is, if they build this, they will come. It will be an easy dump for kids. My fear is it will become another Polinsky, which is not a healthy place to live."

A shortage of foster families contributes to overcrowding at institutions, county officials say. Skeptics, including Boles, Bowman, and Warren, say families don't get adequate financial and psychological support. The state sets compensation rates, but counties may subsidize them. Both sides note the number of foster families dropping out of San Diego County's system each year nearly equals the number that join, so the total -- about 1500 -- remains the same. Money earmarked to buy and renovate San Pasqual Academy can't be applied to foster families or operating costs because they are one-time-only, single-purpose funds.

Underlying the complex and emotional issue of how to care for needy children are environmental concerns. Many San Pasqual Valley residents want to preserve the historic and rural character of their community. Last year, the county proposed transforming the vacant Seventh Day Adventist boarding school into a juvenile detention center for 1200 youths. The county spent $33,000 toward an environmental impact report for the center, which would have included a courthouse, county offices, and huge parking lots.

That project prompted Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) to add San Pasqual Valley to its list of "San Diego's Most Endangered Historical Sites." Local preservationists feared the equivalent of a small town and resulting automobile traffic would overwhelm the pristine valley, long protected from development by an agricultural preserve and more recently by the establishment of San Dieguito River Park.

Prehistoric archaeological sites, Victorian homes, and San Diego County's only known adobe schoolhouse account for the valley's historical significance. "It's a place arrested in time," said Bruce Coons, president of Save Our Heritage Organisation. "We probably won't oppose foster care. On the surface, it doesn't look like it would be any greater impact than the [Seventh Day Adventist] school, but we would want to know what their expansion plans are."

By moving the proposed juvenile detention center to Otay Mesa, the county pacified many of the San Pasqual Valley residents who didn't want that type of charity near their homes. To demonstrate his opposition, one rancher brought a pregnant buffalo to one of the County Board of Supervisors meetings in downtown San Diego.

The county, which had paid a nonrefundable deposit of $500,000 for the boarding school, then proposed using it for a foster-care facility. Supervisors eliminated the requirement of an environmental impact report, a move that frustrates some valley property owners subject to stringent land-use rules. "As a private citizen, I would have to jump through every single hoop to build something like an academy. The government is the first one to break their own laws," groused Darrell Beck, a semi-retired contractor in Ramona. Because the county rejected the request of two citizen advisory groups to limit the number of children in San Pasqual Academy, Beck is suspicious. "On the surface, it looks as though the foster-care facility will have much less impact," Beck said, "but once politicians get their foot in the door, they can change their minds. The potential for expansion is there."

Beck is among community activists who perceive some supervisors as waffling. As members of the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, Pam Slater and Dianne Jacob voted against a juvenile detention center, but as supervisors they voted for a foster-care facility. "I know there's a difference between foster care and a detention center," Beck said, "but there could be problems down the road." Although the new project appears to be an afterthought, county officials and supervisors say they had been thinking about providing an alternative for teenagers who don't bond well with foster families.

Yvonne Campbell, deputy director of Health and Human Services Agency, estimates as many as 500 such teenagers bounce from foster family, to Polinsky, to group home, and back again. The projected $8 million to $9.5 million annual operating budget of San Pasqual Academy would represent about 10 percent of what the county spends to shelter children. It translates to $2949 a month per child, adjusted for inflation. That exceeds "basic care" rates of $506 and $553 that foster families receive for teenagers. However, the cost of Polinsky and group homes supplied with special services that transitional children may not need is more than $5000 a month.

"We won't be spending any more money on these kids than we are now," Campbell predicted. "The ultimate cost to society is these kids could leave the system without a high school diploma and homeless. San Pasqual is a more reasonable, higher-quality program than what we're doing now." The project does not mean that the county is giving up on foster families, she said. "For some kids, one shoe does not fit all." Even though Cox wrote in memos three years ago, "Dependent children in San Diego County need a parent, not a process," he said he has since learned some children need other options.

Nancy Paige, a resident of Escondido, acknowledged that far fewer people oppose the foster-care facility than the larger, more intrusive juvenile detention center. "I know the media and the county like to portray us as a bunch of NIMBYs," she said, referring to the "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome. "But some of us who have been looking at San Pasqual Academy and researching foster care really question whether this is a good idea for children."

In public meetings, Paige has rankled county officials by suggesting that institutions increase the potential for sexual abuse. "The older and bigger kids will prey upon the younger kids. Foster parents tell me that it's rare to receive a child from Polinsky who hasn't been sexually abused," Paige said. "The supporters of San Pasqual Academy get very angry if you call it an orphanage or institution. They get very angry about any mention of sexual abuse. Everyone ignores that issue."

Campbell disputes such statements. Reported incidents of sexual abuse involve 6 percent, or about 420, of the county's foster-care children. "We do have kids who have been molested, and we have effective ways of dealing with that," Campbell said. "It's not a rampant problem."

Controversy arises from almost every aspect of the project. Although the San Pasqual Valley is scenic and peaceful, some children may feel isolated there and segregated from mainstream society. Despite numerous activities planned for the academy, some children may get bored.

"It takes a special kind of person to want to live out here," said Mary Keiser, co-owner of the San Pasqual Store and author of The Spirit of San Pasqual. "You're at least nine miles from the nearest movie, fast-food restaurant, library, or anything else. My teenage son was furious with me for living out here because he was so far from all his friends."

Keiser wonders how a paid staff can give troubled teenagers the personal guidance they need. The county plans to hire a nonprofit organization to operate San Pasqual Academy and is scheduled to seek bids in June. The county has accounted for $19.5 million of the $24.5 million needed to buy and remodel San Pasqual Academy, but some components of the $19.5 million could change. Last week, the county agreed to sell Deer Park near Escondido for $4 million. Some state lawmakers, such as Assemblywoman Dione Aroner, D-Alameda, are questioning the governor's decision to budget $1.5 million for the project. And at least $4.9 million must be raised from additional private donors.

"Donors like to give money to new facilities. They like to see their name on a plaque or on a room," said Warren, now a law student at Yale. "But day-to-day life isn't going to be wonderful. I think the board [of supervisors] has fantasies that it's going to be like Cider House Rules," Warren said, referring to a recent film about a New England orphanage with compassionate workers. "There is no Dr. Larch."

Arredondo, an undergraduate at San Diego State University, agrees that institutions are not ideal. However, she feels she might have benefited from a place like San Pasqual Academy. "I didn't feel comfortable fitting in an already established family," she recalled of foster homes. "I didn't like group homes either, but what I liked about them was there were other kids I could relate to." After living in so many places, including Polinsky, Arredondo said, "I would have liked one place to call 'home.' "

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