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Group Home Healing

By Larry Wilson
Pasadena Star-News

THE business of taking good care of the most severely abused and emotionally devastated children in Los Angeles County can't be much like any other business.

In the first place, it's not really a business: It's a calling. It's work not all of us could do even if we were called.

And if you save one, you find there's an endless supply where she or he came from.

But it's work the good folks up at Altadena's Five Acres have been doing on the same site since 1925, and as a county orphanage since 1888.

It turns out that in their profession, as in others, insights occur that turn into new ways of doing things around the shop.

"We're working to get kids out of here faster," Five Acres Executive Director Bob Ketch said Tuesday during a stroll across the grounds where dozens of children live and play and go to school as they seek shelter from their storms.

That plain notion is part of a rubric loosely called Making Connections that is guiding Five Acres these days.

During a retreat, its board and staff realized that, as critically important as the work they have always done is, they can't protect a child from the world forever.

In fact, after a certain point of protection from the ravages that have beset them has been reached, the longer a child remains in such group care, the harder it is to establish the kind of foundation we all need for a successful adult life.

Loving as the staff and volunteers are, it's hard to come back to Five Acres for Thanksgiving. I mean, I have a strong feeling they'd let you in the door, but people move on. It's an institution, not a family. Permanence is what's called for.

So Five Acres has become more determined than ever to move its temporary charges into family life as soon as humanly possible.

After what these kids have been through, that rarely means with the biological parents. But it very much can mean with grandparents, with aunts and uncles, with foster parents, with adoptive parents.

It can happen in so many ways. In one case, two brothers under Five Acres' care have found their family in the form of a skateboard buddy's mom - she is currently moving toward taking over their legal guardianship.

Or, for example, the use of powerful genealogical search engines is making finding far-flung biological family members easier. One such search turned up 34 family members in New Hampshire for a Five Acres child.

Five Acres is also turning to the children themselves for help in finding the parents with whom they were meant to be.

"`Why weren't we asking them before?' you sometimes ask yourself," Ketch wondered as we continued to stroll.

"We didn't always necessarily take that into consideration, sad to say," said Cathy Clement, director of development. "But now we're asking, `Who was the most important to you?' And it comes out."

Hey, insights happen. Once you have them, they can seem obvious. The key thing is not to reject the best plans once hatched simply because they are so simple.

larry.wilson@sgvn.com

Larry Wilson is editor of the Pasadena Star-News. His column runs Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.