Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Canyon Acres story - by Judge Jim Gray

Last St. Patrick’s Day, while waiting at Promelis Market for my take-out order of corned beef and cabbage, I began making light conversation with a distinguished- looking man who was waiting for a similar order to take home to enjoy with his family, including several grandchildren. After expressing my jealousy that he had grandchildren and I didn’t, we began talking about other things.

It turns out that this man was Patrick Dirk, a name that was familiar to me, and he was soon discussing his involvement and commitment to an organization called Canyon Acres Children and Family Services. Surprisingly enough, even though I had sat as a judge on a juvenile court assignment for several years, I was not familiar with this group. So I asked him about it.

At this point, Dirk lit up with infectious enthusiasm. He told me that Canyon Acres is a private/public partnership composed of about 95 paid staff and 300 volunteers that work with the Orange County Health Care Agency, the probation department, and other parties to provide homes, care, treatment, and supportive services for abused, neglected, and emotionally troubled children and their families in Orange County.

What began in 1980 as a home for 12 young children has grown into a model child-welfare agency. It assists with foster care, adoptions, creating family connections, a daytime treatment center, “wraparound” services, mental health services, and in-home crisis services.

In doing this, they have found that their timely intervention both helps to keep children in their homes, and also reduces the chances that the children will later have to be placed into a higher level of care.

Sadly enough, many abused and neglected children in the child dependency system have family members and friends all around the country who are unaware of their plight. So Canyon Acres makes a concerted effort to find them.

Through a unique process of “high-tech” searching, these potential support systems are found and, if they are interested, introduced to the children. Then they are assisted through an “engagement process” to stimulate ongoing contacts and relationships. This action alone provides the children with a sense of stability, hope, guidance, and a brighter hope for the future.

Today most people who are involved with the court system realize that it is frequently in the best interest of the child, parents, and society in general to keep children in their homes as much as possible. So Canyon Acres coordinates the services of mentors, therapists, therapeutic behavior services coaches, and school teachers into a team to individualize a program for each child and family. That is what is known as Canyon Acres’ wraparound services, and they have gratifyingly large numbers of success stories to show for their efforts.

For example, Amanda had been in the foster care system since she was 3 years old, when she was removed from the home of her abusive father. Her mother was known to be on the streets, hooked on drugs, and prostituting herself, and the child welfare agency case workers had written off any further attempts for Amanda to live with her mother because they couldn’t find her.

Enter Canyon Acres’ wraparound services, which found the mother, assisted her in finding a six-month detox program, and then found a home for her that would assist her to reunify with Amanda. Then the team, along with the therapists, helped the mother to discover her own strengths and weaknesses, and helped her further to cultivate her ability to overcome the challenges connected with them.

In addition, the team discovered that Amanda liked to play the guitar, and encouraged and facilitated that interest. The team also assisted in the creation of a family photo album that helped to create in Amanda a much-needed sense of belonging. Over time, all of these efforts worked, and the Canyon Acres team helped a damaged mother and wounded daughter to reunite. Now Amanda is living back with her mother, going to school, and learning to play the guitar, and both of them have regained their health, self-confidence, and self-respect.

Canyon Acres also has a highly trained staff to provide, on a moment’s notice, some in-home intervention to help stabilize families in crisis, with the goal of preventing a child’s placement into Orangewood Children’s Home or psychiatric hospitalization. Orangewood is a fabulous institution, and people in our county have every right to be proud of it and its accomplishments. But the better result is not to have to use their services in the first place, if reasonably possible. And Canyon Acres often realizes that goal.

Then there is the treatment center itself. This is composed of a 4.6-acre ranch in Anaheim Hills, where severely emotionally disturbed children are brought for two to three hours after school, or all day during the summer, for specialized programs including recreational therapy, art, therapeutic horseback riding, and other mental health-based activities.

Mental health professionals have discovered that, among other things, where children will not originally open up to other people, they will often “confide” to a horse. So they have four horses on site, all of which have been privately donated. Canyon Acres specializes in dealing with hard-to-treat children, and it advertises itself as a “wonderful place for children to heal.” Well, based upon my good fortune to meet several of the key players in the Canyon Acres story, and also to take a tour of their ranch, I am here to tell you that they are right!

That was what inspired me to write this column, so that you could also be aware of this wonderful organization. And if you would like to learn more about what they do, please come to their Annual Blue Ribbon Gala, which will be on Saturday, May 16 at the Balboa Bay Club. Not only will you meet some of these marvelous, dedicated, and effective people, you will also be able to contribute your support to one of the most dynamically successful organizations I have ever encountered.

For more information, contact me at the e-mail address given below, or contact Canyon Acres directly at (714) 385-5272. These people are doing great work, and I know you will want to join me in giving them your full congratulations and support.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at

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