Custody of the Kids


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As he wanders through the residential unit at the San Diego Center for Children, winding through a knot of hyperactive youngsters, Tom Arnold seems to be playing against type. In the movies and on television, he’s usually the likable buffoon, or, some might say, the boorish lout. Here, as the kids jump at him, and prod and jostle him, talking all at once, Arnold is a study in calm. Only his eyes, which dart about in vivid animation, betray him. In them, you catch a reflection of the confused and abused children the comic/actor has come to cheer.

Arnold is no stranger to these kids, and vice versa. For half a dozen years now, he’s made regular pilgrimages to the center, to swap stories with the kids. To encourage them. To listen to them. Later today, he’ll take 40 of the children to a Padres-Cubs game at Qualcomm Stadium, to see Sammy Sosa hit home run number 61, maybe. But first, he’ll take them on in a couple of games of pickup basketball. In between, he’ll meet with the doctors and administrators to see what else he can do to help. And he’ll sit down with a reporter to share the urgency of the center’s mission and his own childhood story of abuse and confusion.

“You know,” he says, “I do see a reflection of myself in some of these kids. When I was growing up, I had a baby-sitter who was older and molested me on a continual basis for a while. And there are a lot of things you feel, when you’re a kid like that, that you kind of carry with you. And I see it in the kids’ eyes.

“You don’t feel you really fit in; you feel kind of lonely,” says Arnold, who also grew up with attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder. “And you have low self-esteem. Definitely. You act out. It comes out in a lot of ways. Fortunately, I had a father who cared; I didn’t have a mother [around]. But I was in a lot better shape than most of these kids. When I read the case studies of some of these kids, it just makes me feel so fortunate, you know?

“I dealt with a lot of these issues when I was adult,” Arnold says. “But I didn’t deal with it until I got sober, which was about nine years ago.” It was a few years after that when Tom Arnold first met the children of the San Diego Center for Children. Tom and his then wife, Roseanne.

Some may have viewed that first visit to the center as a publicity stunt. At the time, the Arnolds certainly could have used some positive publicity in San Diego.

The story is widely told, the stuff of legend in San Diego. Roseanne, the biggest star on television in 1991, came to San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium to sing the national anthem at the behest of her producer, Padres owner Tom Werner. She did not exactly do Mr. Werner proud. In fact, after a performance ripe with vulgarity, during which she grabbed her crotch and spat, newspaper columnist Don Freeman wrote: “I happen to know for a fact that, after hearing Roseanne sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ dozens of people rushed out to change their citizenship.”

Around that time, the Arnolds showed up on the doorstep of the San Diego Center for Children with offers to help. But Tom Arnold insists the two incidents were unrelated.

“The truth was,” he says, “that Roseanne and I had both gone through some things that were similar to what these kids had suffered. We had abuse in our childhoods, and we were looking for something to do to help others, and it was the right place at the right time.

“It wasn’t to pay back the town. I think Roseanne is probably still pretty proud of her performance at that game. And I did get to throw out the first ball. In fact, as she was getting booed, the guy said to me, ‘Do you still want to throw out the first ball?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, ’cause it’s gonna be my last opportunity, ever, here.’”

What Tom and Roseanne Arnold found on their first visit to the center was a 105-year-old institution feeling a serious financial pinch. The San Diego Center for Children had begun a capital campaign for badly needed new buildings in 1991, just as the recession was putting a stranglehold on the San Diego economy. Some funds were raised, but a couple of years later, with construction under way, the money ran out. And with the buildings still unfinished, the project was shut down.

By then, a lot had changed for Tom Arnold. He and Roseanne had gone through a wildly acrimonious divorce. His own career was drifting, at best, with a couple of canceled series and some only moderately successful movies. But the children at the center remained a constant in his life. After the divorce, Roseanne stopped visiting the center; Tom’s appearances continued. He got custody, it seemed.

About that, Tom says only, “She moved on; that happens sometimes. It would have been fine with me if she had continued. And we’d still be glad to take her checks.”

At the center, the children, whose ages range from 4 to 14, suffer from a variety of emotional, social and development disorders. Not all are victims of abuse, but most (about 70 percent) are. The center, the only one of its kind in Southern California, provides specialized classrooms for children with pervasive developmental disorders, and day treatment or residential programs for abused or emotionally disturbed children. It also operates a foster family program.

The majority of the children are from San Diego, but some come from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. About 20 percent are in day treatment, with the other 80 percent divided evenly between residential and foster care. While most of the youngsters are victims of abuse, CEO Edwin Kofler is quick to note that “some of the children come from good homes where the parents care a whole lot about them.

“These children may suffer from some chemical imbalance, an emotional or development disorder,” Kofler says. “They may be having trouble in school, trouble getting along at home, and the child is frustrated and the family is frustrated.”

And so they come here.

In the past, the primary focus at the center was on residential care. (In fact, the center was founded in 1887 as a shelter for homeless women, later becoming a temporary shelter for children.) But more recently there’s been a shift toward nonresidential mental health treatment. In most cases, Kofler says, the center works to reunite a child with the family when it can. For others, the next step might be placement in a therapeutic foster home. The average time spent by a child in residential care is about six months, though some might stay as long as two years. In foster care, the stay averages more than two years.

With a rebounding economy, and redoubled efforts at fund-raising headed by center vice president Sharon Wilson Smith, the center—in danger of shutting down less than two years ago—is operating in the black. And today, administrators are concentrating on long-term growth through grants from the government and pharmaceutical companies. As a result of volunteer work contributed by developer Douglas Barnhart, the new special-care building that sat unfinished for three years is set for occupancy by January 1.

Downstairs, in the Robert A. Fergusson Special Care & Research Center, will be a residence hall with 16 new beds for severely traumatized children. When it opens, it will boost residential capacity at the center from 39 to 55. Still not enough. There’s a wait list of 42 children.

Upstairs will be the Tom & Julie Arnold Institute of Development Research (named for the comic and his new wife). The institute, organized in 1991, brings together a team of experts from across the country to share information on the latest in child development. The annual budget for the center is $250,000, with the doctors donating their time.

The experts, who meet quarterly, include specialists in neurology, psychology, psychiatry and even pediatric cardiology. The latter comes from a concern over the physiological effects of medication on the children, some of whom may be on as many as a dozen different medications at once. Another concern is violence. Children who are victimized often victimize others.

“The whole goal here,” says Arnold, “is to have a safe place for kids, plus to have a place to do research. Not only to care for the kids and work with them, but to do research that will help everybody. To study the effect abuse has on kids—or even the effect that living in a violent neighborhood has on kids. What it does to them physiologically—what it does to their brain waves, maybe.

“When kids are abused, they act out in so many ways—I mean violence, that is. Sometimes they continue the abuse with their own children. Sometimes suicide. There’s so many things. But each kid that we work with is so valuable to society.”

Arnold and his wife Julie visit the center several times a year. Their contribution amounts to more than celebrity endorsement or the writing of a check.

“Well, I do make some appearances at fund-raisers,” Arnold says, “but I like to do baseball games—Padres games—with the kids whenever I can. And we do Christmas here for the kids every year at Planet Hollywood. And I like to just come down and play basketball with them. And talk to them.

“I never talked to my father about what I was going through, the sexual abuse. I was embarrassed about it. It was between the time I was 5 to 7, and the other guy, the trusted neighborhood baby-sitter, was about 18 years old. But you blame yourself, and you’re embarrassed and you feel guilty. That’s what always happens. If your parents beat you up, you blame yourself. If you’re sexually abused, you blame yourself. It’s the same with all kinds of abuse. You see it with battered women, too.

“Even later, it wasn’t talked about in my house. And really, I never dealt with it until I got sober. It was something I always knew, but when I got sober, when I was 30, I was ready. It’s like sometimes you’ll look up in the sky and you’ll see a jet stream, and you’re not sure what you’re seeing. And then suddenly, you realize it’s a jet stream. I guess when I was 30, I was ready to get sober and to work on a lot of things,” he says.

Eventually, he returned to his old hometown in Iowa and confronted his molester. Arnold says he learned the man, “a big guy in the church back there,” was adopting children, adopting boys, and was about to adopt another one. “First I went to where he worked,” says Arnold, “and I confronted him right there. I said, ‘I’ve given you back the pain and shame you gave me as a kid when you abused me.’

“He touched me, and tried to tell me my memories were wrong. And I grabbed his hand and said, ‘Oh, no. No, I’m not wrong.’ But for a minute it scared me, and I felt like that kid again. And he looked the same, even smelled the same, and it really took me back. But he knew, and that was it.” Arnold said he went to the authorities to warn them about the man and was told there was nothing they could do. But he did hear, later, that the adoption had fallen through.

“I guess the best thing I can do is be an example for these kids of somebody who has gone through similar things and come out okay. Kind of okay,” he laughs. “So that they know if I can do it, they can do it. Anything is possible. It sticks with them.

“When I read about people being open about things that involve their lives—whether it be alcoholism, or drug abuse or physical abuse—and I see that they’re honest about it, and they’re successful in life, it affects me. It’s like: He’s one of us. A kinship. There’s something called ‘terminal uniqueness,’ where some people feel they’re just different from everybody—so different in their own minds. Now I try to find similarities to everybody. It makes my life a lot easier.”

On the list of “in” Hollywood charities, the San Diego Center for Children might be at the bottom. Not particularly glamorous. Well out of the light of the international show-biz media.

“Not glamorous?” Arnold says. “Yeah. And it’s not near my house. And it takes me a long time to get down here. And when I’m not shooting a movie, I tend to be lazy. But it really feels so good to come down here. I’ve written a check to have dinner with the president of the United States. I’ve done that. But being here is better.

“You look at the kids and you feel good. They have banners for me when I come here, banners they make. And they send me things they make. You’ve seen the kids; you know how hard it is for them to focus on anything. And life hasn’t given them much of a chance, so it means something.

“You really do this for yourself,” Arnold says, finally. “It’s a very selfish thing. And that’s what people have to understand. Particularly if they could see the results—to see some of the kids. It’s something you can’t get out of your mind.”

And now it’s feel-good time again for Tom Arnold.

“Where’s the basketball?” he yells, walking out of the center’s boardroom into the 90-degree Santa Ana heat. “I’m gonna need three bath towels for this basketball game. Where are the kids?”

For more information on the center, or to contribute, call 277-9550, extension 145, or write to the San Diego Center for Children, 3002 Armstrong Street, San Diego, CA 92111-5798.

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