Sunday, March 04, 2007

If there is no reunification plan, why aren't these children up for adoption?

Rancho Damacitas: A quarter century of care
Hunneman, John. North County Times, March 3, 2007.

WINE COUNTRY ---- Simply put, Rancho Damacitas is a residential treatment center that works with the county Department of Public Social Services and Child Protective Services.

But there is rarely anything simple about the circumstances that bring youngsters ages 6-18 ---- most of them from Southwest County ---- to live at the nonprofit groups' 12 1/2-acre campus east of Temecula.

"We've heard every kind of story imaginable," said Clifford Nunn, the group's director of development. "And we've seen some of the worst of what humanity can do to humanity."

The nonprofit treatment center, which has served children in this area for about 25 years, kicks off their annual "Kids First" fund-raising drive Friday with a concert featuring the popular Christian music trio Phillips, Craig and Dean. The concert begins at 7 p.m. at Rancho Community Church, 31300 Rancho Community Way, Temecula.

"About 80 percent of our funding comes from the county," said Nunn, who has been with the organization for 10 years. "That keeps the doors open. The rest of it comes from grants, donations and fundraisers."

The donated money helps children at Rancho Damacitas participate in community sports programs, school bands and choirs, go to summer camps, take field trips and do other activities most kids take for granted.

"We're a nonprofit community organization taking care of community kids," Nunn said.

Money will also go to expand the program. The group has purchased a 20-acre parcel in rural Sage and hopes to "start moving dirt," Nunn said, later this year to build another campus. The need, as the region has grown, is greater than ever.

Abuse on the rise
Like almost everything else in Riverside County, child abuse has increased, fueled by the region's explosive growth and, some say, the rise of methamphetamine use, particularly in some rural areas.

"It's absolutely on the rise," said Ruth Kantorowicz, executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Center, a nonprofit group serving most of Riverside County with offices in Riverside and Hemet. "People coming to live from Los Angeles and other areas already have these problems and they're bringing them with them."

Drugs are a major contributor.

"There's a lot of methamphetamine being made here," Kantorowicz said. "And that translates directly into child abuse."

By the numbers
In 2005, there were 3,092 families in the southwest region of Riverside County ---- which covers the area from Temecula to Hemet, including the mountain community of Idyllwild ---- referred for investigation of child abuse to the county's DPSS. Those families included 6,435 children.

"A referral means there is enough evidence for us to do an investigation," said Barry Dewing, deputy director of the agency's children's services division.

In most instances, there was not enough evidence to warrant removing a child from their home.

However, that same year more than 386 children in the southwest region ---- 311 of them from the Hemet and San Jacinto areas ---- were removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. About 40 percent of those children went to live with relatives or close family friends. Within a year most, about nine out of 10, were back with their families.

Children who arrive at Rancho Damacitas after being removed by authorities from their homes will likely not be going back to live with their parents, Nunn said.

The reasons vary, but often include drug and sexual abuse use by parents. In some cases, the parents are incarcerated.

"Most of our kids don't have a unification plan," Nunn said. "We're a long-term facility. Kids come here as young as 6 years old and stay with us until they emancipate out at 18. We have kids stay with us five, six, seven years and more."

The center's goal is to prepare the children to enter a foster-care program, or once they turn 18, get them ready to be on their own.

"While they're here they can put down roots, graduate from school, get plugged into a church," Nunn said. "Developing that kind of relationship is a huge component of the healing process."

A growing need
Rancho Damacitas was founded 24 years ago in Temecula by Randy and Donna Denham.

The nonprofit group bought a single home in Temecula that provided residential care, treatment and services for six young girls.

"At the time, there were not a lot of social services available here in the valley," Nunn said.

The origins of the word "Damacitas" are a mystery.

"You're guess is as good as mine," Nunn said. "It looks like it should mean 'home of young girls,' but I'm told that's not a good translation."

As the area's population swelled in the mid-1980s, so did the need for more social services, including assistance for victims of child abuse. With the help of donations and community fundraisers, the group bought property in Temecula Wine Country and expanded their services to include more children, including boys.

Randy Denham stepped down as head of the organization in 1993 to pursue other interests, he said at the time. Those interests included an unsuccessful run for a Temecula school board seat that same year.

In 1997, after a visit to Haiti as Christian missionaries, the Denhams committed to return to the island to help that impoverished nation.

However in February 1998, Donna Denham stopped on Interstate 15 near Escondido to help the victims of a traffic accident. Another car skidded out of control on the rain-slick freeway and struck and killed her.

Randy Denham returned to Haiti soon after and as far as Nunn knows, he's still there doing missionary work.

The organization the Denhams founded continues to enjoy strong support from many supporters in Southwest County, Nunn said.

"I think because of the longevity of our program, we get a lot of support both from community groups and individuals," Nunn said.

Trying to blend in
They look like many homes in the rural area just east of Temecula ---- single level, good sized yard, two-car garage, a living room with a stone fireplace, family room and several bedrooms.

The four houses of the Wine Country campus of Rancho Damacitas were all built from the same floor plan. Each is home to six children, all of the same gender and, as best as possible, similar cognitive ability.

The houses ---- the preferred term is cottages ---- were designed to foster a home-like atmosphere.

"We don't want this to feel like an institution," Nunn said. "We want it to feel safe and warm."


Each home is supervised by a case manager therapist. In addition, a married couple lives in each house ---- with their own private living area ---- providing adult supervision 24 hours a day.

Two other homes, both within the city of Temecula's borders, are similarly occupied.

The children are generally assigned two to a room and are responsible for cooking, cleaning, laundry and other household chores.

The campus in Wine Country is also home to the center's administration building. In total, Rancho Damacitas has a staff of 50-55 people, Nunn said.

A recent addition to the campus is a softball diamond and backstop. A volleyball court and soccer field gets a lot of use and there are other recreational areas on the property.

"Some of our kids can't go out in the community to do things because of emotional issues," Nunn said.

Others, however, are able to venture out on trips to the mall, parks, ballgames, etc. all under the supervision of a staffer.

Capacity at Rancho Damacitas is 36 children.

"We're always at capacity," said Nunn. "There's a waiting list."

Currently, all but one of the children is a teenager. Most of them attend regular public schools in Southwest County, although nearly all are enrolled in special education programs.

"As you can imagine with some of the things they've been through, they've fallen behind their peers," Nunn said.

A few kids are enrolled in private schools that are better suited to meet their needs.

'Whoever welcomes a child'
Rancho Damacitas makes up one-third of an umbrella organization known as Thessalonika Family Services. The two other components are Rancho Jireh, a foster-care program, and Transitional Living, which provides help for children who once they turn 18 are "emancipated out" of most government supported services.

"That typically starts a downward spiral for many of these kids," Nunn said. "So we continue to provide them with care, help them find a place to live and maybe get them enrolled in a junior college."

On occasion, children who spent years at Rancho Damacitas return for a visit.

"They come in with their wives or husband and sometimes their own children," he said. "It's the best part of the job."

There is no street sign to mark the entrance to the Rancho Damacitas campus.

"We try to blend in the best we can," Nunn said. "We have to protect the anonymity of our kids."

However, halfway up the driveway is a sign ---- citing a verse from Matthew in the New Testament ---- which sums up the underlying philosophy of Rancho Damacitas and its service to the region for nearly 25 years: "Whoever welcomes a child in my name, welcomes me."

More information about Rancho Damacitas is available at: www.thessalonika.org