IF the lock-'em-up approach doesn't help most troubled children, what does? The choice among juvenile-justice reformers is almost unanimous: community-based care. In many states across the United States, group homes are emerging as the popular option for supervising kids in their home communities. These facilities, ideally situated in residential neighborhoods, provide specific treatment 24 hours a day for delinquent, abused, or neglected youths.

In California, group homes are virtually the only alternative to incarceration or foster care. With the largest group home network in the nation, the state can house up to 14,000 children in these facilities at any one time. Since 1979, the number of group homes here has proliferated from 774 to 1,396.

No one knows, however, whether group homes are any more effective than institutions at turning young offenders from crime.

``It's too early to tell anything,'' says Peter Greenwood of the RAND Corporation. The juvenile-justice researcher, in a first-of-its-kind study, is comparing rearrest rates of Los Angeles County youths placed in group homes with rearrest rates of kids sentenced to California Youth Authority institutions. The verdict won't be in on group homes, he says, for at least another 18 months.

Are these facilities better for troubled kids than incarceration is?

``There's no excuse for the California Youth Authority,'' claims group-home administrator Leslie Acoca, echoing the view of juvenile-justice reformers that group homes are at least safer and more humane than institutions. But in California, any good brought on by the system is masked by a plethora of problems - and some tragedies:

Local opposition. Neighborhoods often resist group homes, citing concerns about public safety, property values, and the quality of care for the kids. The result is usually a local political battle between City Hall and group-home operators. Other times, group homes get pushed to rural, out-of-sight locations, and off the public's mind.

Staff problems. Group homes generally suffer from high staff turnover, the ``biggest weakness'' of the industry, says Tom Coleman, a group-home program director in Marin County, Calif. The people who work most closely with kids - the line staff - are underpaid, overworked, and poorly trained, experts say. The turnover problem adds instability to the teen-agers' already-unstable lives, critics say.

Out-of-county placements. As many as 75 percent of all children in group homes are placed out of their home counties, undermining the rationale of community-based care. ``You can't include families in the treatment when the kid is taken out of county,'' says administrator Acoca, who heads one of the few group homes in California that admits only in-county kids. ``When the kid does come back, he has no support'' to help him deal with the very family or neighborhood problems that initially landed him in the system, she says.

Officials who defend this practice, however, cite lack of bed space, reluctance of local group homes to take local youths, or the need to get youngsters away from bad influences.

Poor monitoring. California does not adequately monitor group homes. Although the Department of Social Services has made improvements in recent years, it is still short-staffed, according to the most recent report from the state auditor general's office. As a result placement agencies ``do not report all incidents to the department, because the department's lack of sufficient staff does not permit it to act upon information,'' the report found.

Bungled by bureaucracy, the state failed to complete some annual inspections or follow up with timely evaluations when violations were found. As the auditor general found, ``the department does not always file accusations against group homes regardless of how serious the deficiencies are.'' Nor did it take legal action unless it had enough evidence to win the case. And children in group homes continue to live in unsanitary or unsafe conditions.

The state shut down 20 group homes in 1985 (the most recent data available). But closing a negligent or abusive group home is a long and arduous process in California - sometimes hampered by jurisdictional boundary lines between the state, the children's home counties, the county where the group home is situated, and the group home itself. In the end, as the following cases illustrate, child safety can take a back seat to bureaucracy.

State records on the Bachmann Hill School, a group home in northern California, show a history of broken regulations and improper care of kids dating back to 1971. This year, after 18 years in operation, Bachmann Hill will lose its state license and be forced to close its doors. The Department of Social Services lodged dozens of accusations against the facility, including failure to meet fire-safety standards, failure to obtain criminal-record clearances for staff, failure to keep accurate medical records for each child, housing more children than the license permits, and failure to provide beds for children whenever the home was overcrowded.

In a more disturbing case, Zanadu Group Home in Madera County lost its license this summer - two years after two former residents of the home charged they had been sexually molested by the home's operator between 1981 and 1983. ``Both clients appeared to be thoroughly credible witnesses,'' stated the administrative law judge at the license revocation hearing.

In addition, the judge determined that Zanadu's operators used improper restraints on their clients, violated client confidentiality, hypnotized them without clearance, censored their mail, and lied to officials about housing more than six girls at a time at the facility.

Despite numerous recommendations to do so, the Department of Social Services does not share information with county placement agencies that do not request reports.

Consequently, placement agencies don't know whether facilities are dangerous or under investigation. In the Zanadu case, girls continued to live at the home for two years after the initial accusations. The state says it can be held liable for damaging a group home's program if it finds no proof of wrongdoing. Therefore, placement agencies can continue to place kids in unsafe facilities and children living there are not removed.

IN too many cases, clear lines of responsibility for the children are muddied in the group-home system, critics say. When, as in the Zanadu case, the children in question are from Kern County, the group home is 130 miles away in Madera County, and the state is in charge of licensing the facility: Who is ultimately accountable when things go wrong?

``Something's crazy,'' says US Rep. George Miller (D) of California. Representative Miller, chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, says the system's tendency to ship troublesome kids out of the county contributes to the accountability problem.

``These kids are hard to find a constituency for,'' he says. ``They are tough, they are adolescents. I'm not sure the political system cares for them.''

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