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Bob Ketch Retires

Five Acres children's home leader Bob Ketch to retire after 34 years at the helm
By Janette Williams, Staff Writer- Pasadena Star News - Posted: 08/11/2011 10:51:27 PM PDT

Bob Ketch, executive director of Five Acres in Altadena, sits on a swing at Five Acres in April. After 34 years at the helm of Five Acres, the home for abused and neglected children since 1888, Ketch announced he will retire on Dec. 31. (Walt Mancini / Staff Photographer)

ALTADENA - In 1977, the year Bob Ketch came from Iowa to work at Five Acres, there were 54 children living where orphaned, abused and abandoned children had found a home since 1888.

Bob Ketch in swing at Five Acres campusThirty-four years later, as he prepares to step down Dec. 31 from the leadership role he's held since 1984, Ketch said there's been only a modest increase in children in residence: 76 now live in seven cottages and a nearby group home for teenage boys. "But we have 1,300 children in programs at any one time," Ketch said. "It's reflective of how we've changed from being a residential treatment program only, to developing a whole array of family-based services. It's also in response to how the child welfare and mental health field has changed. We're trying to service children and families by keeping them together, to prevent neglect and abuse, and return them to permanency."

Now, with the search for a new executive director under way, Ketch said Five Acres is set to continue in that direction.

They have established "circle of care" support, he said, with 11 mental health and other programs for children and families, with the goal of reuniting children with a parent or relative. "Safety is the No. 1 criterion," Ketch said, acknowledging high-profile incidences where children in Los Angeles County's care have been injured or killed after being returned to abusive homes. "The second is permanency, a permanent place to live and grow up," he said. "These permanent connections are really important to people and to children, and that's where we've moved our focus."

If reuniting a family is not possible, he said, Five Acres' priority is to find an adoptive home. "It does happen," Ketch said. "Maybe four to six times a year, kids come out of the residential program ... most of them 11, 12 or 13. But in most cases, kids go back to a family member. And if they can't go right away, they go to `bridge' care, a foster home, while we work to find a permanent home." That whole "change in understanding of what's best for kids" developed in part by recognizing what they want, he said. Above all, Ketch said, children long to be with their families. "There is that drive," he said. "We all need people to call on throughout our lives."

The focus on reuniting families has evolved over the past 100 years, he said, with the most dramatic change in the last 15. Five Acres has introduced "wraparound" programs, with teams of specialists working out specific plans to stabilize a family and being there to provide constant support, Ketch said.

Then there are the "parent partners." "People who have walked in their shoes ... who have maybe had children removed, and have turned their lives around," he said. "They can say, `I understand. I've been there."' Such programs, supported by 350 staffers on- and off-campus, don't come cheap, Ketch said, and whoever takes over at Five Acres will likely face funding cuts.

In 1977, the annual budget was around $1 million. Now operations take $32 million in federal, state, grant and private money, Ketch said. Funding was boosted last year by $1.6 million raised by volunteers plus $500,000 in "in-kind" services. Former Five Acres board presidents Marge Wyatt and Margaret Sedenquist predicted it won't be easy to replace Ketch. Sedenquist said it will take someone with "vision and the capacity to enable others to have a vision" for Five Acres' future. "I think that's what I admire about Bob," she said. "He has the kind of leadership that allows others to become leaders."

Ketch said he's never tried to add up how many children have passed through Five Acres in his 34 years. And yes, so many sad stories have affected him, he said. "I've felt despair, certainly, but there's an optimism that's maybe innate in me," he said. "I do know that in 2010 we served about 1,500 children plus their family members. I still do have faith in humanity ... and in the ultimate goodness in people. Sometimes you just have to give them a gentle hand."

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