2017-08-18 / Editorials

Separating fact from fiction at Casa Pacifica

Last week, six teens were arrested in the San Fernando Valley on suspicion of stealing a pickup truck from the Pleasant Valley School District parking lot in Camarillo and smashing through the locked gate to take a short-lived joy ride.

It didn’t take long before it became known that the accused teens—ranging in age from 14 to 17—were residents of Casa Pacifica Centers for Children & Families, the Camarillo-based campus that serves abused and neglected children.

Soon after, community members took to social media to wag fingers at Casa Pacifica’s administration, make generalizations about its budget and comment on the kids treated there. The comments were uninformed at best and downright coldhearted at worst.

The good news is the teens were caught before injuring themselves or others. Because the accused teens are minors, police are being tight-lipped about specifics, including how the kids slipped out of Casa Pacifica, how they got to the school district—3 miles away—and other details. If convicted of pending charges, the youths will face consequences both in the legal system and at Casa Pacifica.

But those who say Casa Pacifica could have done more to stop the kids from leaving the campus on Lewis Road have never had a teenager or have no idea how the shelter works.

Casa Pacifica, founded over two decades ago, is not a locked facility. It’s not a juvenile hall or some Dickensian orphanage. It’s a place where emotionally, physically and sexually abused children go to be in a structured and caring environment.

It’s a shelter for kids who have nowhere else to go or no one in their life who cares about them. It will soon begin offering drug abuse programs for teens.

The staff, about 370 full-time employees and 30 part-timers, serve nearly 3,000 kids a year. Taking into consideration the families it helps, that number is closer to 7,500. Around 110 children live on the campus.

There are folks who’ll say that everyone has had to overcome something difficult in their past. We invite them to hear the kids’ stories from the social workers and therapists treating them. It is the stuff of nightmares.

The kids—most of whom come from across Southern California and have been ordered by the courts to live at Casa Pacifica —cannot be physically restrained from leaving; it’s not a correctional facility. Certainly, there are consequences for those who do run away, but the kids aren’t locked in cells. They sleep in dormitories.

Casa Pacifica gives these kids structure— from regular meals and bedtimes to rules and responsibilities. It allows kids to get medical and dental care.

A school on the campus provides small classes and accountability for the youngsters who come from homes where parents don’t know or don’t care whether or not their child shows up or does a stitch of homework. The school is also for kids who can’t function in a regular classroom environment.

These services are not free. Casa Pacifica operates on a $32-million annual budget. And yes, 80 percent of that comes from taxpayer dollars (with the remainder coming by way of fundraising).

But the truth is, it’s far cheaper to help children at a young age than it is to incarcerate them when they’re adults.

What’s more, think of the time and resources a neighborhood school would have to provide if a place like Casa Pacifica wasn’t an option.

If nothing else, this incident should raise awareness about the necessity of Casa Pacifica and the programs it provides. And it should remind us that we can’t trade a helping hand for handcuffs.

If we do, we’ve turned these kids into convicts, and that would be the true crime.

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