Local agency celebrates 50 years of helping children

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Crittenton offers services to children and families throughout the Southern California region. It also has a practicum program where students from Cal State Fullerton and other colleges can gain hands-on experience in the field of social work. (Courtesy of Crittenton Services)
Crittenton offers services to children and families throughout the Southern California region. It also has a practicum program where students from Cal State Fullerton and other colleges can gain hands-on experience in the field of social work.
(Courtesy of Crittenton Services)

On March 31, a day away from National Child Abuse Prevention Month, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation: “This month, let us aim to eradicate child abuse from our society, and let us secure a future for our children that is bright and full of hope, opportunity and security.”

Crittenton Services for Children and Families is an organization that has been fighting for these principles for the past 50 years.

Lucero Noyola, a former client of Crittenton, looks back on her time there as completely transformative.

Noyola began moving in and out of juvenile hall and juvenile camps when she was 13, but she was placed in Crittenton at age 16. Crittenton was vastly different from any of the previous locations she had been sent to, she said.

“When you’re in juvenile hall, they don’t see you as a person. You’re just a criminal, and you’re just a file,” Noyola said. “A lot of the kids that end up in places like this are carrying a lot of emotional baggage because a lot of things had happened to them. This place seemed to understand that, and they seemed different from the rest.”

Noyola was part of Crittenton’s residential treatment program for adolescent girls. The organization also offers wraparound services; foster care for domestic, unaccompanied and refugee youth; shelter care and integrated behavioral health.

Denise Cunningham, senior vice president of Crittenton and CSUF alumna, said the agency is serving about 500 clients at any given moment.

Although the organization is so large, with offices in several counties, employees at all levels of the organization make sure that the focus stays on what matters most.

“No matter what program, we’re serving children and their families,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham, who started at the organization as a social worker fresh from graduating from CSUF and has since shifted to an administrative side, spoke about how she has learned the importance of both jobs.

“I don’t touch maybe every kid individually, but I touch them in a different way by dividing the program. My goal now is trying to see the bigger picture of where things are going,” she said.

Crittenton also has a practicum program that takes on interns who gain hands-on experience in human services at the organization.

“When you’re a practicum student, especially in our residential program, you’re not filing. Youe in the mix; you’re with the kids,” Cunningham said. 

Last year, CSUF’s Social Work Department and the Center for Internship and Community Engagement (CICE) named the agency “Most Committed Partner” at the annual CICE Community Engagement Awards.

“Crittenton offers so many diverse experiences for students to learn and be in the field,” said Marcella Mendez, a student field director at CSUF who nominated Crittenton for the award.

Mendez spoke highly of Crittenton’s importance to the community and of the valuable partnership that CSUF has with the agency.

Nine of the 12 students who participated in the first round of the practicum program were offered jobs at the organization, Mendez said.

Joyce Capelle, Crittenton’s CEO, did not start with ambitions to head a social service agency. She took a job at Crittenton with no intention of staying.

“I think my previous experiences in hospitals and in public education all came together here at Crittenton,” Capelle said. “Even by accident, sometimes good things happen.”

Capelle said she tries to stay out of the way of people who work directly with children and clients.

Undergraduate and graduate students involved in Crittenton’s practicum program have the chance to be involved in the agency’s learning environment, while the agency has the chance to develop future leaders.
(Courtesy of Crittenton Services)

“A lot of the horrible things that happen to kids, I can’t personally help. I don’t have the gift that our staff has of being a direct caregiver or a therapist,” Capelle said.

While Capelle humorously described her job as “an amorphous blob of activity,” what she and every administrator and employee does is keep the purpose of their work in sight.

“It’s really important to break the hold of trauma, to heal it, if you will, give children and young people a sense of agency, a sense of ownership of themselves, and power,” Capelle said.

For a young person who has never had a support system or a sense of personal agency, receiving it through one of Crittenton’s services can be truly life-changing.

Cunningham shared stories about some of the clients she felt Crittenton has touched the most. One young woman arrived at Crittenton at age 16 and now returns to visit Crittenton with her children every year during the holidays. Another client, who was on Cunningham’s case load as a baby, is still in contact with the program director over 18 years later.

Noyola said that she fell in love with education during her time at Crittenton. Before then, nobody had ever told her she was smart.

“They were little things, but they meant a lot to me,” Noyola said. “They really changed my outlook on life while I was here, and so I started doing really well in school, and I was very happy because I felt competent. I felt accomplished.”

Not only is Noyola about to graduate from USC with a double major in psychology and sociology, she now works at Crittenton as an employee.

“And they’re still acknowledging me and my success,” she said. “I love Crittenton.”

From taking care of babies to offering in-home services to struggling families, to training the next generation of people who can make a difference, Crittenton has spent the last 50 years trying to help children.

“We’re big and complicated; we do a lot of different things,” Capelle said. “But I think ultimately – to transcend all of the programs, curriculum, interventions – the real secret sauce, if you will, is fundamentally having a relationship with a kid.”

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