May 23, 2017: SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE - Chronicle investigation spurs calls to close foster care shelters

May 23, 2017

Link to original story and photos HERE:

 

By Karen de Sá, Joaquin Palomino, and Cynthia Dizikes

 

The state attorney general’s office is looking into hundreds of dubious arrests at California’s shelters for abused and neglected children that were detailed last week in a San Francisco Chronicle investigative report.

The attorney general’s response comes amid calls from judges, state lawmakers and youth lawyers to consider shutting down shelters where children as young as 8 have been funneled into the criminal justice system for minor incidents.

Meanwhile, the director of Mary Graham Children’s Shelter in San Joaquin County, which had the highest number of arrests among California’s 10 shelters last year, has taken an abrupt leave. County officials have called for immediate reviews of the newspaper’s findings that shelter staff contacted the sheriff an average of nine times a day last year, with children booked at juvenile hall nearly 200 times in 2015 and 2016.

The county shelters are the first stop for children removed from their homes by social workers, and for those in between placements in the nation’s largest foster care system. Yet instead of serving as refuges for children, The Chronicle found the shelters often call law enforcement to quell their emotional outbursts — an extreme reaction that can have lasting impacts on youngsters handcuffed and booked at juvenile halls.

Foster children have faced criminal charges for shelter incidents as minor as flooding a carpet and poking a staff member with a candy cane.

Fostering Failure

California's foster care shelters are supposed to serve as a refuge for vulnerable children. Instead, they have funneled hundreds of kids into the criminal justice system. Read our special report here.

“We have a responsibility, particularly with kids in the child welfare system, to figure out why is this baby doing this? Why is she acting out? Not just calling the police,” state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who has authored juvenile justice reform bills, said after reading The Chronicle’s report. “At what point did we decide that this was criminal, as opposed to a cry for help?”

Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Youth Law Center, said she was contacted Friday by an attorney with the Bureau of Children’s Justice in the state attorney general’s office, which is evaluating how the office can pursue the issue.

The attorney general’s office in an email declined to comment, but Rodriguez said the office could examine whether youth are unfairly jailed for reasons that non-foster youth would never be held, as well as whether the state is holding county-run facilities to the same licensing standards as private agencies, among other issues.

“The civil and law enforcement capacity of the Bureau of Children's Justice could be an incredibly powerful tool to ensure protection and accountability for the most vulnerable children in county-run shelters,” Rodriguez said.

The Chronicle documented more than 14,000 calls for service to police and sheriff’s departments in 2015 and 2016 from California’s 10 shelter campuses. The law enforcement intervention led to at least 485 arrests, citations and detainments for alleged criminal offenses, mostly involving damage to shelter property or scuffles with staff or other children that did not result in serious injury. In more than 370 cases, foster children were taken to juvenile halls.

In recent years, the state has initiated a move away from residential foster care facilities, including shelters, placing only the most emotionally troubled children in group care. But The Chronicle’s exposure of hundreds of arrests of foster youth for low-level offenses troubled some who led the reform.

State Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Santa Cruz, authored the 2015 legislation to reconfigure the state’s foster care system to rely more on emergency family homes and relatives, scaling back group homes and limiting children’s stays in shelters to just 10 days. Already three shelters have closed, or plan to close, by year’s end.

But new legislation may soon be in order “if shelters do not respond to the problems revealed in the report,” Stone said.

“Now we need to be looking at the shelters with a critical eye. Their interactions with children have to be different — and if they are not, then that’s an alarm and we are going to have to step in.”

Children in most California counties who enter the foster care system do not go to shelters. Instead, they are placed in emergency foster homes or with relatives, or they spend just a few days in an assessment center where emotional blowups are less likely to be considered crimes.

“One answer to this problem is to close the shelters,” said Patrick Tondreau, presiding judge of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Court, who chairs a statewide task force studying foster youth who cross over into the juvenile justice system.

Tondreau’s county shut down its shelter more than a decade ago, in part due to the excessive calls to law enforcement.

“Every effort needs to be made by everyone at all levels not to transition these kids to a delinquency system,” Tondreau said. “They have been seriously traumatized, and it is natural for them to react with anger. Using law enforcement in most of these situations is taking the lazy way out.”

Reaction to The Chronicle’s findings was swift in San Joaquin County where more than half the juvenile hall bookings originated.

Last week, shortly after being informed of the newspaper’s findings, Mary Graham shelter director Gary Gunderson announced he was going on medical leave.

Gunderson and other county officials did not respond to repeated requests for additional information regarding the leave, including when it began, how long it was expected to last and who would take over in the interim.

Vickie Delph, the San Joaquin County assistant deputy public defender, said The Chronicle’s findings confirmed long-held concerns within her office, which represents children and parents in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Meanwhile, other county officials announced their own plans to make change: San Joaquin County Supervisor Miguel Villapudua, whose district includes Mary Graham, said in a statement that he would be initiating a review of the incidents that led to arrest, as well as the facility’s policies. And the county Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission plans to interview law enforcement and Mary Graham officials about the number of sheriff contacts and arrests at the children’s shelter.

Some youth advocates and former foster youth demanded that Mary Graham be closed.

Michael Provencio, 30, stayed at Mary Graham multiple times in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While there, he said he saw children hauled off to juvenile hall, including a girl who wrapped a towel around her hand and broke several windows and another child who started a fight by throwing a pencil at someone.

Provencio now works as a youth coordinator at Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, a local organization serving low-income communities. He and his wife adopted their son several years ago, in part to keep him from the turmoil that Provencio had known in the foster care system.

Provencio said he was outraged to learn that more than a decade after he stayed at Mary Graham, the shelter was still relying on law enforcement to handle seemingly minor incidents.

“The people in positions of power aren’t doing anything. We shouldn’t even have a children’s shelter,” he said. “All of these calls to law enforcement, and all of these kids. It just breaks my heart.”

Karen de Sá, Joaquin Palomino and Cynthia Dizikes are staff writers on The San Francisco Chronicle’s Investigative Team. Email: kdesa@sfchronicle.com, jpalomino@sfchronicle.com, cdizikes@sfchronicle.com, Twitter: @JoaquinPalomino, @cdizikes