State demands fixes in San Joaquin foster care system
State officials have found that San Joaquin County is failing to properly care for its foster youth — from inadequate visits by social workers to poor monitoring of psychotropic drugs — with problems extending far beyond an emergency shelter where hundreds of abused and neglected children have been arrested and jailed for minor misdeeds.
The California Department of Social Services this month informed county leaders they had 30 days to propose reforms of their foster care system. Under the legal code cited in the state’s Aug. 14 letter, the state has the authority to take action against noncompliant county child welfare systems, including taking over the agency.
The state action, described by child welfare experts as “extremely serious,” follows a Chronicle investigation published in May that revealed hundreds of children placed in shelters across California were arrested and jailed after emotional blowups and scuffles with staff. The majority of arrests occurred at the 60-bed Mary Graham Children’s Shelter near Stockton.
“We remain significantly concerned about the County’s child welfare services practices,” Gregory Rose, deputy director of the state’s Children and Family Services Division, stated in the letter. San Joaquin County is being given just one month to respond, he wrote, due to “the number of issues identified, the sensitivity of those issues and the length of time they have been occurring.”
To date, the California Department of Social Services has never resorted to an administrative takeover of a county child welfare system. Only three California counties in 29 years have faced a formal threat.
“Invoking the threat is extremely serious, and what it tells us is their whole child welfare system is terminally ill and children and families are being done serious injustices,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, which has fought for years to improve conditions at the Mary Graham shelter. “For the first time really, they are acknowledging that the shelter is just the canary in the coal mine.”
San Joaquin County Human Services Agency Director Michael Miller said in an email that his county intends to respond to the state’s recommendations within the 30 days. He did not elaborate.
The state enforcement action follows ongoing scrutiny of the excessive use of law enforcement at the Mary Graham shelter in French Camp. The county foster care shelter is one of a handful still operating in a state that has mostly rejected them as an outmoded model of children’s care. The shelter serves as an emergency placement when no other foster or group home can be found.
In its investigation into arrests at California’s children’s shelters, The Chronicle found that abused and neglected children placed at Mary Graham had been booked at the nearby juvenile hall following relatively minor outbursts, incidents that are expected in a facility serving large groups of deeply traumatized youth. Although county leaders pledged fixes in the wake of the report, arrests have continued in 2017, including the recent jailing of a 14-year-old girl for assault after she tossed a cup of water on a counselor.
In June, state officials issued a health and safety citation to the Mary Graham shelter, finding it had provided inadequate mental health services for a boy who attempted to hang himself twice in one week.
In its letter to county officials, the state said that San Joaquin County’s broader failure to properly care for foster children shows up acutely in the shelter, “exacerbating issues” at the facility.
But problems at the shelter are a symptom of far deeper, systemic deficiencies, the state has found.
In an examination of 15 child welfare cases in April 2017 and a case file review last year that was reported to the federal government, officials found an array of deficiencies, including:
•Social workers failed to meet with children in their care often enough, did not help them stay connected to their families and community, and relatives were often not sought for children removed from their parents.
•Educational and mental health needs were poorly documented and could not be verified, including psychotropic and other medications that were inappropriately monitored.
•Children with significant trauma did not have case plans tailored to meet their needs, and they were not given a voice in planning for their care.
•Repeated reports of child abuse and neglect had been made to local authorities before children came into foster care for the first time, “which may have led to trauma and behavioral needs that made placement and supportive services a challenge.”
Meanwhile, runaways and overreliance on law enforcement have continued at the county-run shelter. The state determined those issues resulted from poor engagement with youth, a lack of on-site activities, failure to transport children to their schools, and insufficient attempts by staff to de-escalate emotional outbursts, resulting in children running away or lashing out.
The Youth Law Center’s Rodriguez said that for too long the system has blamed children for the failures of adults who were supposed to care for them.
“Every kid who has sat in juvenile hall, who has had a negative interaction with police officers, they’ve been paying the consequence of the county’s complete negligence in protecting and healing these kids,” Rodriguez said. “The negligence in the county is almost criminal, but who we’ve been punishing is the kids.”
Under the Welfare and Institutions Code Section 10605 referred to in the state’s Aug. 14 letter, if the county “demonstrates a lack of good faith effort to actively participate,” or fails to make the improvements outlined by the Department of Social Services, a series of “measured formal actions” can result, potentially leading up to state administrators temporarily taking control over all or part of San Joaquin County’s Human Services Agency.
The mere mention of that authority shows the state is serious about holding San Joaquin County accountable for changes needed, child welfare experts said, but the ultimate enforcement action is considered unlikely. Indeed, the state has never taken such action before, even in counties where serious deficiencies in care have been found, including Los Angeles in 1990, San Francisco about two years later, and Alameda County in 2001.
In those counties, social workers failed to visit foster youth regularly, children were suffering abuse in the system, and medical and dental services were determined to be inadequate.
The state attention on San Joaquin County was applauded by youth advocates, who believe long-festering problems at Mary Graham may finally be addressed.
“As foster youth being wards of the state, we are their children — would you do this to your own children?” said Xavier Mountain, a 25-year-old who was placed in Mary Graham as a teenager in the foster care system. Mountain is now pursuing a graduate degree in social work and public administration, but he says too many foster youth get derailed by life in the system.
For them, he welcomes the state’s efforts to improve the San Joaquin County foster care system, so “the youth may actually receive the help that they need.”
Sammy Nuñez, executive director of the local advocacy group Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, said he hoped the ramped-up attention and pressure from the state would finally lead to significant change in the long-troubled child welfare system.
“They can’t just ignore this issue any longer,” Nuñez said. “They cannot continue to look the other way when all this harm is being done.”