Growing up

How Victor Treatment Centers became the state’s biggest provider of help to emotionally disturbed children

ALL THIS FROM CHICO? David Favor, chief executive officer of Victor Treatment Centers, seems a little surprised himself that the Chico nonprofit grew to be the largest provider of services for emotionally disturbed children in the state.

ALL THIS FROM CHICO? David Favor, chief executive officer of Victor Treatment Centers, seems a little surprised himself that the Chico nonprofit grew to be the largest provider of services for emotionally disturbed children in the state.

photo by Tom Angel

By the numbers: Victor Treatment Centers and North Valley Schools employs five psychiatrists, about a dozen psychologists, 150 master’s-level social workers and therapists 850 workers overall. The lowest possible wage is $9.50 an hour with full benefits.

David Favor, now 63, remembers vividly the childhood that inevitably led him to a career in social work: growing up in a crowded, wartime orphanage after his mother died when he was 5. “I had very bad experiences in the orphanage,” he said, simply and reflectively. An elderly missionary couple was in charge during the day, but at night, “it was kind of turned over to the older kids, who beat up on the younger kids—and I was one of the youngest.”

Children, Favor says today, need loving attention. And children who are so emotionally disturbed that they can’t live at home should be placed in a “homelike community” that gives them as much support as possible.

Favor’s nonprofit company, Victor Treatment Centers, has set that as its mission.

From two administrative offices in Chico (growth prompted a recent expansion), Victor Treatment Centers serves a large portion of the state’s severely emotionally disturbed young people ages 6 to 19, garnering millions of dollars in grants from grateful counties and the state.

There are several group homes in four regional centers in Shasta, San Joaquin, San Bernardino and Sonoma counties, where thousands of children are served each year. A related business is North Valley Schools, a accredited private-school program set up to educate emotionally disturbed students whom public schools don’t want or can’t handle.

During its more than 30 years in existence, Victor Treatment Centers has won accolades from the state and children’s advocacy groups. More recently, it’s had to fend off lawsuits after several teens reported having been molested by workers in the company’s homes.

Favor, looking grandfatherly with his gray beard and sitting in a south Chico office full of hardwood furniture, spoke about how he built his business.

In 1963, fresh from earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington, Favor was recruited to come to California and work for what was then called the Department of Mental Hygiene. He said he would come only if he could work in a small-town setting, not far from the mountains or ocean, with a university nearby. “That’s Chico,” they told him.

His job was to help transition mentally ill patients who were being released en masse from state hospitals under then Gov. Ronald Reagan’s regime. This included more than 3,000 children who had been warehoused in places that “were built more like prisons, with multiple locked doors and bars on the windows.”

By 1968, Favor had put his vision into motion, opening the first treatment center on Victor Avenue—hence the name—in Redding. It’s grown into the largest program of its kind in the state, probably the nation, with an annual budget of $50 million.

“We could choose to live anywhere in the state, and we choose to live here in Chico because we love Chico,” Favor said of the administrative team, which numbers 14.

In the residential programs, the typical child is 15 or 16 years old and has already been through several foster and care home placements.

“When we get them, they’re in very bad shape,” he said. The goal is “to return them to as normal a life as they can have.”

Also, he mentioned, “the kids that we are seeing now are far more injured and angry than I ever used to see.”

Favor’s approach is to have staff members trace the child’s steps back to his or her parents. Even if they aren’t able to have the child in their home, Favor said, the parents almost always want to be involved on some level.

All of the programs have a long waiting list.

Favor said it’s not profit that motivates him to open another center or program; it’s the requests of the surrounding community. For example, when Butte County asked Victor Treatment Centers to take over an adult care program in Paradise on a “temporary” basis, Favor was glad to oblige. That was 10 years ago, and he’s still running it.

Favor said he decided early on to make his business a nonprofit because it was never destined to be a big moneymaker, and “there was no advantage that I felt to being for-profit.”

Combining his work for Victor Treatment Centers and North Valley Schools, Favor draws a salary of $238,000 plus benefits—more than the president of Chico State University and certainly quite a bit for Chico.

It’s a wage for which he makes no apologies. “More than half the time [building the business] I spent working for peanuts,” he said. “It’s kind of getting reimbursed for all I’ve done in this previous time. I take my salary unabashed.

“I’ll probably work until I’m too senile or until I’m a burden to the program,” Favor added. A bout with autoimmune hepatitis eight years ago prompted him to reorganize the company such that “it would run whether I was here or not.”

Favor sees himself and other top managers as a resource for the employees under them, “and all of us are here for the kids.”

Favor is being modest, says Ed Abramson, a Chico State psychology professor who’s been friends with him for 30 years and serves on the board of directors for North Valley Schools.

Favor, Abramson said, is motivated by his own desires to give children a happier youth than he had in the orphanage. “He’s stated repeatedly that he’s not going to be happy until there are no kids in state psychiatric hospitals.

“He’s very persistent,” Abramson laughed.

Favor needed all his mettle to deal with lawsuits lobbied at Victor Treatment Centers after several young people reported abuses at group homes in San Bernardino County.

In 1999 a teacher’s aide befriended and seduced—sodomized—an 11-year-old boy living in a group home known as Bronson House. The sexual contact took place as he visited the child in his home on weekends, which was against center policy, Favor said. The man was criminally convicted, and a jury ordered Victor Treatment Center to pay $1.2 million to the boy.

“It was quite a shock to us,” Favor said. The man had been screened, fingerprinted—everything required by law. Favor and his colleagues knew that the industry attracted pedophiles as well as those genuinely concerned about children, and statistically chances were that one day there would be abuse related to one of their centers. But that didn’t keep them from second-guessing themselves later, Favor said, “despite the fact that we had every safeguard imaginable.

“I felt terrible, as did all other people involved in that,” Favor said.

He said the trial was especially difficult because Victor Treatment Centers’ lawyers had told the company not to comment to the press. “I just wanted to scream out, [but] essentially we were gagged by our attorneys, who said we weren’t going to try these cases in the newspapers.”

The judge threw out the $1.6 million in punitive damages, essentially rejecting the idea that Victor Treatment Centers should have known about the abuse.

As for the other cases, including one in which several teen girls reported molestation, “Some were settled and some were just unfounded,” Favor said.

The state did want Victor Treatment Centers to surrender its license on one of its treatment houses in San Bernardino County, so the company did so voluntarily, Favor said.

Blanca Castro, a spokesperson for the state Department of Social Services, said Victor Treatment Centers has addressed all the state’s concerns and there are no cases outstanding. She characterized the case of the San Bernardino house as “one bad apple” that was “not indicative of other facilities.”

“They certainly corrected the problems,” Castro said.

Since the court cases, Favor has reorganized the staff at the San Bernardino center where the now-convict met the boy he abused. The administration is set up differently, and there’s a stricter policy regarding how the adults can interact with youngsters.

“They can’t be as close to the kids as a parent would be,” he said.

It’s a shame, Favor said, that things have to be so clinical, but he’d rather err on the side of caution, even if it means no innocent cuddling.

“The most rewarding part of the program is seeing the kids and talking to the staff who work with the kids,” said Favor, who, with the help of a private plane he flies himself, visits each program for a day or two once or twice a month.

About one-quarter of the children grow up to live independently. “We even have kids who have gone on to college” and the military, Favor said. They keep in touch with staff members, many of whom have been with Victor Treatment Centers for more than 15 years. One graduate ended up teaching special education and was a featured speaker at Victor Treatment Centers’ 30th-anniversary party.

“And here we are this little program in Chico," Favor beamed.