Sunday, April 19, 2015
street news, views and stories of justice and injustice
Follow me on Twitter

Search WitnessLA:

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives

Meta

Foster Care


Crucial Bill to Give More Crossover Kids a Chance at Extended Foster Care Benefits Passes Out of Committee

April 17th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



On Tuesday of this week, a bill was passed out of committee
that, if passed by the full California legislature, would offer extended foster care benefits to groups of what are known as “crossover youth”—kids affected by both the juvenile justice and the foster care systems. An earlier bill (AB 12), that passed in 2010, gave many crossover youth the crucial three-years of extra help that research has shown can dramatically improve outcomes for kids as they begin to navigate adulthood without the help of stable families. But, due to quirks in the law, still other crossover youth were excluded from receiving the all-important extended benefits.

The new bill, SB 12, which was introduced by Sen. Jim Beale (D),, was the focus of a recent story by Daniel Heimpel, that was co-published by WitnessLA and the Chronicle of Social Change. The story, called Who is Watching Out for Angel, told of a now 20-year-old young woman who entered the foster care system through the doorway of juvenile probation when she was arrested following a fight with her mother, after years of reported abuse at home.

While Angel now hopes to qualify for extended care, the need for the bill was made particularly clear by two earlier stories written by Brian Rinker (here and here) for the Chronicle of Social Change.

Rinker wrote of three brothers who entered foster care together but were immediately split up, and each sent to different placements. Due a variety of circumstances, only the youngest brother, Joseph Bakhi, was eligible for extended care, while his two older brothers, Terrick and Matt, were not. The outcomes for each of the three brothers differed dramatically. Joseph attended UC Berkeley with scholarships and financial aid available only to foster youth. In contrast, the other two brothers—Terrick and Matt—had no support after turning 18, either from family or from the state, and faced constant struggle, were at times homeless, and began battling with drug addition.

On Tuesday, Joseph Bakhi attended the committee hearing in support of his brother Terrick, who was hit particularly hard by the lack of support after he turned 18.

“I am a proud recipient of AB 12,” Joseph told Chronicle of Social Change reporter Sawssan Morrar. “And with assistance like this I could only imagine the difference in Terrick’s outcome. Issues like these are prevented by AB 12 and other resources, but the criteria to receive them are exclusive to kids that fall under dependency status.”

We will be following the progress of SB 12, as it makes its way through the legislative process.


Photo by the excellent Max Whittaker, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation | No Comments »

LA County’s Proposed Budget…Feds Investigate SF Jail Abuse Allegations…CA Bill to Reduce Drivers License Suspensions…and Criminal Justice Questions for Presidential Candidates

April 14th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA COUNTY’S REFORM-MINDED BUDGET PROPOSAL ALLOCATES MORE $$ TO MENTAL HEALTH DIVERSION, JAIL SERVICES, FOSTER CARE

In a press conference Monday morning, the office of LA County interim CEO Sachi Hamai released the 2015-16 budget proposal.

A spokesman for the CEO emphasized that the new budget is focused on “major programatic reforms, with new positions and funding” going toward “improvements in the criminal justice system, child protection, and improvements in health care delivery.”

Out of $26,923 billion, only an additional 10.2 million is going to mental health diversion, but it’s a big step in the right direction. In June, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey is expected to present to the Board of Supervisors her task force’s report on creating a comprehensive mental health diversion plan for the county.

An even larger step is the $66.9 million to fund 542 additional child protection positions, in order to lighten social workers’ cases loads, a crucial move in the name of child safety. Over-stressed social workers are more likely to miss things.

Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement that the proposed budget “provides critically needed resources to support ongoing efforts by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) to ensure the compassionate treatment of inmates in the nation’s largest jail system, while also continuing to develop smarter justice system approaches to those in our community suffering from mental illness.”

Public budget hearings are slated to begin in mid-May.

The LA County Supervisors are also scheduled to vote today on a motion to institute some additional oversight for probation in the form of an audit.


FBI JOINS THE GROUP OF AGENCIES PROBING REPORTS OF SF DEPUTIES FORCING INMATES TO FIGHT AND BETTING ON THEM

The FBI has initiated an investigation into allegations that four San Francisco deputies forced jail inmates to brawl in gladiator-style fights and placed bets on them. SF District Attorney George Gascon, the SF Police Department, and the sheriff’s department have also launched investigations into the matter. (WLA will continue to track this story.)

KQED’s Alex Emslie has the updated story. Here are some clips:

The four deputies named at the center of an independent investigation initiated by [San Francisco Public Defender] Jeff Adachi remain on paid leave, [SF Sheriff Ross] Mirkarimi said. Their names are Scott Neu, Eugene Jones, Clifford Chiba and Evan Staehely. The law firm representing the deputies did not return a call seeking comment.

The federal inquiry officially started April 3. Special Agent Greg Wuthrich said the FBI investigation is at a very early stage.

“Civil rights allegations are definitely huge for the bureau,” Wuthrich said. “These kind of things, we take very seriously.”

[SNIP]

Adachi said in a statement that he is pleased with the FBI’s involvement and commended Mirkarimi for taking the unusual step of inviting the federal probe.

“Eliminating this sort of brutal and sadistic conduct starts by leading an investigation that isn’t tainted by conflict of interest or misplaced loyalty,” Adachi said. “I look forward to a thorough and fair investigation that includes determining whether additional deputies were aware of the abuse and complicit in their silence. To ensure this never happens again, there must be accountability — not only for the perpetrators, but for those who fail to speak up.”


CA BILL WOULD CUT DOWN ON ALL-TOO-COMMON LICENSE SUSPENSIONS FOR NON-VIOLENT TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS

A new bill by CA Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) aims to reduce the number of drivers whose licenses are suspended after failing to pay (often exorbitant) fines for non-violent traffic offenses.

SB 405 follows closely behind a report condemning California’s policing-for-profit system as not unlike the situation in Ferguson, MO. In both places, fines pile on top of fines when a driver is unable to pay a ticket, burying the person (often poor to begin with) under a mountain of debt. And often failure to pay these fines results in a suspended license, which prevents the person from driving to a job to earn money to pay the fines. One in six California drivers have had their licenses suspended, and according to a separate report, nearly half of people whose licenses are suspended lose their jobs.

The bill would reinstate drivers licenses lost due to non-violent traffic infractions, as long as the licensee then paid back the debt through the state’s proposed Traffic Amnesty program.

A New Way of Life Reentry Project, the East Bay Community Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children cosponsored the bill.

Here’s a clip from Sen. Hertzberg’s website:

Hertzberg said suspended licenses can trap the working poor in an impossible situation: unable to reinstate their license without gainful employment and unable to access employment without a license.

“This is a Catch 22 that traps people in a cycle of poverty,” Hertzberg said, pointing to a recent New Jersey study that found that when a license was suspended, 42 percent of drivers lost their jobs. Of those, 45 percent were unable to find a new job. Even accounting for those that kept their job, 88 percent of people with suspended licenses reported a reduction in their income.

In California, the number of licenses suspended during an 8-year period from 2006 to 2013 exceeded 4.2 million. In that same timespan, only 71,000 driver licenses were reinstated.

Under existing law, it is virtually impossible for the driver’s license to be restored until all the unpaid fees, fines and assessments are completely paid. This jeopardizes economic stability in the state, limits the available workforce, and forces employers to bear the cost of replacing workers and finding qualified replacement workers with valid licenses.

In addition to trapping many Californians in a cycle of poverty, the sheer number of suspended licenses poses a threat to public safety. Evidence suggests that when people lose a license for reasons unrelated to safety, they take the suspensions less seriously. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 75 percent of people who have had their licenses suspended just keep driving – often without insurance.


RADLEY BALKO: CRUCIAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE QUESTIONS WE SHOULD ASK ALL PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has a “quick and dirty” list of important criminal justice reform questions for all presidential candidates.

If you are wondering who has thrown their hat in, thus far, the NY Times has a nice little chart (updated as of yesterday, April 13).

Here are four from Balko’s list, but there are … more where these came from:

The Obama administration has made heavy use of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate patterns of abuse and civil rights violations by local police departments. Would you continue this policy in your administration? To what extent is the federal government obligated to step in when local police and prosecutors are either habitually violating or failing to protect the constitutional rights of citizens in their jurisdiction?

[SNIP]

Several media reports, advocacy groups and judicial opinions (including a recent opinion by Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit) have described an epidemic of prosecutor misconduct across the country. Do you believe there is a widespread problem of prosecutor misconduct in America? Do you believe the federal government has a responsibility to address it?

[SNIP]

Do you believe the criminal justice system is infected with institutional racism? I’m not asking you to assess whether individual cops, judges, or prosecutors are racist; I’m asking if you believe there is inherent bias built into the system.

[SNIP]

Do you believe the criminal justice system is infected with institutional racism? I’m not asking you to assess whether individual cops, judges, or prosecutors are racist; I’m asking if you believe there is inherent bias built into the system.


Posted in Board of Supervisors, DCFS, District Attorney, FBI, Foster Care, jail, Jim McDonnell, Juvenile Probation, LA County Board of Supervisors, mental health, Public Defender | No Comments »

WHO IS WATCHING OUT FOR ANGEL? The Shadowy Intersection of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice – by Daniel Heimpel

April 12th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon




EDITOR’S NOTE:
On Tuesday, the California Senate Judiciary Committee will debate a bill to widen access to extended foster care benefits for probation-involved foster kids who have landed in the juvenile justice world because of untenable situations at home.

The wonderful and important story below written by Daniel Heimpel—and co-produced by WitnessLA & the Chronicle of Social Change— explains in deeply human terms why this bill is so essential.

WHO IS WATCHING OUT FOR ANGEL?

A 20-year-old’s saga of abuse, incarceration and heartache illuminates the shadowy intersection of child welfare and juvenile justice.

by Daniel Heimpel


Like a picture in a magazine.

That’s how Angel’s mother Leah wanted their small townhouse in Pacifica, California, to look. Picture perfect.

Leah says that she got the idea of giving her 12-year-old daughter chores after Angel’s school sent home fliers describing the importance of teaching children how to “become successful adults.”

When her adolescent daughter failed to manage perfection—when Angel missed a task in her 16-point list of chores that ranged from cleaning the cat’s litter box to folding plastic grocery bags exactly four times over—Leah’s mood grew dark.

The punishments she meted out escalated from ridiculous, to humiliating, to grim.

“She would ground me from food,” Angel, says. “She would ground me from wearing normal clothes. I’d have to go to school in my pajamas. She would ground me from petting my cat. She would ground me from my room.”

Having given birth to Angel when she was herself just 16, Leah says that she didn’t ever learn how to be a parent. Then, when her own father died, and Angel was around 14, Leah stifled her grief with a mixture of alcohol and cocaine, which she admits affected her behavior.

Whatever the exact cause, when her daughter failed to maintain the order she was trying to bring to their home, Leah’s reactions were extreme. She would exile Angel to the communal laundry room of their housing complex. There, with the damp Pacific cold pushing in, cat vomit on the floor, the girl would be forced to sleep.

Worse still were the beatings. Sometimes, Angel says, her mother would hold her down, and use scissors to cut the clothes off her body.

One day when the girl was 15, the usual discord between Angel and her mother erupted. This time, however, the conflict took a direction that would set Angel adrift in the murky space between juvenile justice and foster care.

The row began in the evening over some dirt under the microwave that Angel had neglected to wipe up. This time Angel stormed out before the punishments could start.
When she came back, red-faced from climbing the hill to their home, her mother accused her of being drunk.

“She confiscated my book bag saying she was going to look for drugs in it,” Angel says. With her book bag, Leah also took the homework that Angel had to turn in the next day.

Angel was famous for leaving everything until the last minute, says her grandmother, Wendy.

“Talk about a fuse lit and the bomb explodes,” Wendy says. “The situation became very volatile.”

Angel kicked Leah’s door, frantic to get the book bag back.

Leah burst out, and attempted to ground Angel from her room again. “She started taking my door off the hinges. I tried to stop her, and was met with punches and kicks so I backed away.”

Leah’s version is different. Instead of demanding her schoolwork, Leah says that her daughter threatened her.

“’I don’t fantasize about drugs or sex,’” Leah remembers Angel saying, “’I fantasize about ways to kill you.’”

Both Angel and Leah agree about the way the fight ended. “I copped out and called the cops,” Leah says.

An hour later, two male police officers appeared at the front door. Angel told them that she was the victim, and tried to show them the hot red welts on her arms and legs from where her mother had hit her. “They averted their eyes so quickly,” Angel says, “as if they wanted to pretend I had never said anything.”

The cops took Angel to the Pacifica police station. From there, she was moved to San Mateo County “Youth Services Center,” a juvenile hall in Belmont, where she spent two-and-half months. Finally, Angel says, her attorney told her that if she took a plea deal, she would be released faster than if she waited around for trial. She pleaded guilty to charges of vandalism and battery and spent the next five months across the street in the Margaret J. Kemp Camp for girls.

When the five months were up, no one was sure where to send the girl. Leah admits that child protective services had investigated her because of reports of abuse and neglect filed by neighbors and Angel’s estranged father over the years, starting when Angel was a baby and Leah was still in her teens. Why child services never removed Angel from Leah’s care earlier is not clear. But when her relationship with her mother failed, and she was released from camp, it was probation’s turn to act as a parent.

And so it was that, in 2010, Angel became one of roughly 4,000 California children who to this day enter the juvenile justice system and are kept in group homes because they have nowhere to go or cannot be safely returned home to serve out the terms of their probation.


CALIFORNIA’S “SECOND SYSTEM”

California’s probation system is one of a number across the country that use federal foster care funds to take care of kids like Angel who enter juvenile justice but have no safe home to serve out their probation terms, so are placed in group homes. With the federal dollars come strings, along with memorandums of understanding spelling out for all 58 counties that their juvenile probation departments must provide case management like the foster care system would.

But probation isn’t foster care. It is a law enforcement agency, which means its go-to method for eliciting compliance from kids is often its power of arrest, a tactic that runs contrary to the goals of healing children from the emotional abuse that got so many of them caught up with the law in the first place.

Then there is the matter of what to do when this distinct subset of vulnerable probation youth reach age 18.

In the foster care system, it has long been recognized that to cut all aid at age 18 was to invite poor outcomes with disproportionately high numbers of foster youth experiencing homelessness, incarceration and diminished educational opportunity. When it comes to children who have had the double blow of experiencing foster care and the juvenile justice system, a famous 2011 study out of Los Angeles tracking these so-called “crossover youth” showed that their transitions into adulthood can be twice as perilous.

With the outcomes of foster youth in mind, in 2010 the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 12, which extended foster care benefits from age 18 to 21. In 2012, California began implementing AB 12, and kids like Angel, who entered foster care through probation’s door, were eligible.

While Angel describes her encounters with juvenile justice as painful and providing little discernible therapeutic value, they did afford her the opportunity for support past age 18.

“These young people are fleeing abuse and neglect,” says Amy Lemley, the policy director of the John Burton Foundation, and a leading advocate behind AB 12. “ They [probation foster youth] probably did something as a direct result of being maltreated, and that resulted in them entering the juvenile justice system. We have a secondary system for kids that act out because they were abused.”

While far from ideal, that “secondary system” provides a unique escape, unavailable in most states.

“In other places, the juvenile justice system is completely distinct,” Lemley says. “She [Angel] would have been shuttled into the criminal justice system and not be eligible for extended foster care.”

Pending legislation here in California could open up eligibility for extended foster care to even more young people who were involved in the probation system.

But advocates maintain that this is not a simple policy fix. Across the state, county probation departments are grappling with how best to help these emerging adults who are often suffering the long-term effects of childhoods riddled with traumatic events, including having spent large parts of their younger days in juvenile halls, camps or probation-run group homes.


THEN THE TRAILER CAUGHT FIRE

Shortly before Angel’s 16th birthday, the juvenile probation department in San Mateo County released her to the custody of her grandmother, who had finally agreed to take her. While this new living situation was far preferable to returning Angel to her mother, it was less than ideal.

Angel’s grandmother, Wendy, had always been an anxious and at times oblivious woman. (She confesses, for example, that she had no idea that her stepson had been sexually abusing Leah when she was a child.) With Angel sleeping on a couch in her cramped South San Francisco apartment, Wendy tried to set the “boundaries” in a sort of delayed atonement for her failings as a mother to Leah.

“She worried about my safety excessively and didn’t want me to end up like my mother: a teenage parent on drugs,” Angel says.

Angel admits she wasn’t an easy kid to handle. “I came to her after suffering years of trauma,” she says. “I was struggling to cope and I had a tremendous amount of repressed anger.”

Wendy’s efforts to keep the rebellious teenager in check, along with the terms of Angel’s probation, which included strict curfews, came to a head one night in January of 2013. Wendy had been up the whole of the previous night, sewing a Victorian-era styled dress for Angel to wear at a dance the following evening. Angel and her grandmother had bonded over tales of English aristocracy and stories of Wendy’s grandmother, who had been educated in London and spoke the “Queen’s English.”

“It was part of the family mythology we liked to connect with,” Wendy says.

But the sleepless night of sewing, along with the strain of a recent invasive medical procedure to remove varicose veins, caused Wendy’s temper to flare and the two fought. The rupture lasted for weeks. By March, Wendy says that Angel was increasingly elusive, staying away nights at a time. Finally one night, a worried Wendy remembers driving to the South San Francisco Police station with an 8.5 x 11 inch photo of Angel’s face, and pleading with police to find her granddaughter.

When the police did find Angel near a San Bruno shopping mall a few hours later, she was scared of being locked up again and gave the cops a fake name. Angel pleaded guilty to giving false identification to a police officer and was soon whisked back to San Mateo County juvenile hall, where she remained for the next two-and-a-half months.

“I thought it was very unfair,” Angel says. “I hadn’t done anything wrong, but was being treated like a criminal.”

When it was time for her release from San Mateo Juvenile Hall, Angel’s grandmother would no longer take her in, and her mother’s home still wasn’t a legal option. Thus county probation “placed” her in a group home on the grounds of the juvenile hall.

The group home, called the Excell Readiness Center, was in reality a flimsy prefab structure, where four boys and four girls were crammed into four tight bedrooms. Angel would spend the next 10 months there. She was due for release when she turned 18.

Weeks from her birthday, Angel met with her probation officer who gave her a cursory description of the extended foster care benefits available to her. According to Angel, it was one of only a handful of times she met with her P.O.

Days after the meeting, a dryer in Angel’s group home caught on fire.

“Smoke was pouring into my room from the hallway,” Angel says. “My entire room was full of it.”

As she and her trailer mates were evacuated, she remembered that one of the boys had once threatened to set the place on fire. “He actually did it,” Angel says.

After a long and cold night spent in one of the group home vans, the kids who had been consigned to the trailer were moved to the “receiving home” down the street where children removed from their homes because of safety concerns were kept until they could be placed in foster care. “Our clothes and hair still smelled of smoke when they woke us up,” Angel says.

Vernon Brown, the CEO of Aspiranet a large youth service provider that ran the readiness center until 2014, says that most of the kids were moved back to the structure within a couple of weeks.

But for Angel, the fire meant leaving probation’s care prematurely and going back to live with her grandmother prior to her 18th birthday. Wendy agreed to take her granddaughter back, under the condition that it would only be for a few weeks.

Once those weeks were up, as is the case for so many other probation-involved foster youth, the only thing certain in Angel’s life was uncertainty. She was not terribly clear about how to get the extended benefits her probation officer had outlined only briefly. And the idea of putting herself back into the county’s hands made her anxious.

So Angel struck out on her own.


WIDENING THE DOOR

In October of 2010, the year AB 12 was passed, 391 youth between age 18 and 20 were supervised by probation in group homes, according to data compiled by the Center for Social Services Research at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. By January of this year, the new law was showing impressive results. The number of 18 to 20-year-old probation youth had exploded by almost 400 percent to 1,485 young people.

But advocates contend that significant numbers of probation-involved foster youth are still being excluded from AB 12, so are pushing for new legislation to open access to kids who share similar experiences with Angel.

Among those young people still slipping between the cracks are those who have spent large stretches of time in the county’s care but are, by happenstance, released from probation group homes to the custody of a relative before they turn 18.

“They forget that the youth ever came from child welfare,” says Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director the Youth Law Center, and a central player behind a series of legislative pushes to improve AB 12 for probation-involved foster youth. “Sometimes the probation department is releasing them right back to the parent who child welfare removed them from. All the problems that initiated the child welfare referral still remain and are not resolved.”

Another group presently excluded are the otherwise AB 12 eligible kids who, for one reason or another, find themselves in a locked juvenile facility on their 18th birthday, at which point any extended benefits suddenly vanish.

In October of last year, The Chronicle of Social Change published a story following the lives of three brothers who had all been in foster care.

The youngest, Joseph Bakhit, was AB 12 eligible and is using the extended benefits to help him pursue a degree at UC Berkeley. The oldest, Matthew, was excluded because he was already 21 when the law was implemented. Terrick, the middle brother, was denied AB 12 benefits because he was locked up in San Diego County’s Camp Barrett on his 18th birthday. If he had been released to a group home the day before, or if the judge had written him an all-important “placement order,” he would have been eligible.

Without the benefits, Terrick has struggled to succeed, the most stable employment he has had was selling knives for Cutco.

State Senator Jim Beall, who had been one of the lead legislative proponents behind AB 12, was moved by the story of the Bakhit brothers, and the efforts of advocacy groups like the Youth Law Center, to introduce legislation that would expand extended foster care eligibility for probation-involved foster youth.

“When you take away benefits, it is telling the kid, ‘You’re not going to college,’” Beall says. “I fail to see the logic of taking away the benefits. We’re going to fix that. That is the intent of [Senate Bill] 12.”

SB 12, which will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 14, would also open up eligibility for a class of kids who, like Angel, had nowhere to go when the terms of their probation were up. But, while Angel was legally “placed” with grandmother Wendy, making her magically eligible, some are simply sent to live with a relative or other caretaker without a placement order, leaving them ineligible for the important three years of extended foster care benefits.

But the proposed legislation has powerful opponents, such as county probation department officials from up and down the state who say they are already struggling to deal with the influx of AB 12-eligible foster youth, so are opposed to widening the door for still more young people.

“We are having difficulty serving the foster youth we do have,” says Rosemary McCool, deputy director of the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC). “The current programs, in our view, aren’t sufficiently funded. We shouldn’t be expanding the population by any amount.”



PROBATION AS PARENT

As Beall and others battle with the CPOC over whether or not to fix the policy barriers for excluded crossover and probation youth, the big question affecting young people now in the system is this: Are probation departments equipped to effectively stand in for parents during AB 12 kids’ fitful transitions into adulthood?

California is a vast and diverse state, and some counties deal with the fates of their 18-year-old charges better than others. Contra Costa County is among those still struggling, according to an attorney with intimate knowledge of the county’s system.

Virginia Corrigan is both a deputy public defender in Contra Costa County and a lawyer working for the Youth Law Center through a fellowship offered by Baker & McKenzie LLP and Intel. As a P.D., Corrigan carries a caseload of more than 30 Contra Costa probation youth who are AB 12 eligible.

She says that while the county is good at getting kids into AB 12, probation lacks the institutional knowledge to effectively deal with housing and other critical services once the kids are in the system.

“Sometimes supervision of this population is foreign to probation,” Corrigan says.

The matter became clear to Corrigan on her very first case in 2013, when she spent weeks helping her young client fill out forms for housing services, and explaining how AB 12 worked.

“It ends up being a replacement for what a social worker would be doing,” she says. “My primary goal should be advocating for them in court,” not helping them with paperwork to get them a place to live.

Across the Bay in San Francisco, the county’s juvenile probation system is far more proactive. Instead of relying on its probation officers to handle the casework for AB 12-eligible probation youth, the department added two new social workers dedicated exclusively to working with that population. The workers were assigned to the Juvenile Collaborative Re-Entry Unit (JCRU), which was already helping the county’s probation youth as they transition back into their communities.

“We were very aware of the conflict of having probation officers supervise those youth,” says Allison Magee, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Zellerbach Family Foundation, who, while serving as deputy director of the city’s Juvenile Probation Department in 2012, came up with the idea of hiring social workers for AB 12 kids. “It frankly is confusing to both the child and the P.O., as the P.O. has mandated responsibilities that would become very blurry.”

Allen Nance, chief of San Francisco’s Probation Department, also considers the strategy important. “Unlike other departments across the state, we are one of the few, if not the only, that has chosen to staff these caseloads with social workers instead of probation officers.”

Rebecca Marcus is a San Francisco juvenile public defender with 24 current AB 12 kids on her caseload. Marcus sees AB 12 as a lifeline for young people who have few options when released from probation without a safe place to call home.

“I have had two kids within the past year who were AB 12 eligible, whose high school graduations I attended, who didn’t take advantage of the program and who were both killed in San Francisco,” she says.

The latest death, which occurred just a month ago in March, has clearly shaken the fast-talking public defender.

“AB 12 is a tool to help young people relocate out of wherever they live,” she says, pointing out that oftentimes these youngsters return to the same dangerous neighborhoods that led them into the system in the first place. This was the case, she says, with her 19-year-old client. “He had the ability through AB 12 to relocate. He did not, and was murdered in the middle of the day.”

Polina Abramson is one of San Francisco’s two AB 12 social workers who work to keep kids caught in risky personal circumstances in extended foster care. She says she has 19 such cases, five of which are “unfunded,” meaning that the young people are not meeting all of AB 12’s eligibility requirements. Her counterpart, Heather Bruemmer, has a caseload of 22.

In addition to that list, there are other kids who are eligible, says Abramson, but didn’t opt in immediately, thus winnowing down the three short years of benefits that AB 12 offers.

Abramson says she understands why 18-year-olds often want to strike out on their own, especially those whose last residence was a probation group home. But, she notes, they often come back.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that goes into surviving in the real world,” Abramson says. “Kids realize that they could actually benefit from having someone in their life and have support.”

When they do, Abramson and Newell are there to catch them. And P.D. Marcus is more than ready to make their case in court.

In Angel’s San Mateo County, the juvenile probation department says that there are only three probation youth accessing AB 12. Angel now wants to be the fourth.


GETTING BACK IN

It is just after 6:00 pm on Friday, March 27, and Angel is already an hour late for her meeting. She passes happy clusters of other young people, relieved to be taking their first breaths of the weekend on a cool spring evening in downtown Oakland.

Angel too is feeling happy. It is her 20th birthday, and it has already been a good day. She and grandma Wendy spent the afternoon together. The highlight: sharing high tea, English style, a nod to their mythologized aristocratic ancestor.

Angel chose not to see her mother today. In the five years of their separation, Leah has made a number of unsuccessful efforts to repair their relationship, like showing up unannounced on Angel’s 18th birthday, which frightened the newly minted adult, rather than delighting her. Other attempts by Leah to give her daughter gifts have resulted in Angel recoiling.

“My mother says that Angel treats every gift like a rattlesnake that is going to bite her,” Leah says when called for an interview on Angel’s 20th birthday.

Arriving slightly flushed at the eleventh floor offices of the California Youth Connection, Angel is greeted by six former foster youth and two staffers sitting around some tables pushed together for the weekly policy-intern meeting. They are there to discuss how education policy is effecting foster youth, but when Angel walks in they immediately begin singing “Happy Birthday.”

As it happens, Angel has something else to celebrate. Just the day before, she handed in paperwork to a San Mateo social worker that should allow her to opt back into AB 12. Since her 18th birthday, Angel has spent most of the past two years at a transitional housing program available to young people at risk of homelessness.

But Angel has often coped with less stable circumstances, couch surfing with acquaintances, even spending one difficult night warming herself next to a generator in a South San Francisco park.

Angel hopes for at least a period of real stability while she works to advance at San Francisco City College. But for now, riding high on her birthday, she dreams of visiting England and the manor where the popular PBS show “Downton Abbey” is shot.

If yesterday’s paperwork is approved, the “second system” that handles cases like hers will provide her with a residence and other benefits, at least until her next birthday.



Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.

WitnessLA and the Chronicle of Social Change collaborated in producing this story.

The story was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation,which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties.


All photos (except for the family photo of Angel and her mother) are by the excellent Max Whittaker, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.


CORRECTION: We wrote Heather Bruemmer’s name inaccurately in the original draft of this story, but it has now been corrected.

Posted in Foster Care, Homelessness, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation | No Comments »

LA Officials to (Belatedly) Crack Down on Over-Drugging LA Kids….A Juvie Lifer Artist…and the Shooting of Walter Scott

April 8th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



MENTAL HEALTH OFFICIALS TO CRACK DOWN ON OVER-DRUGGING OF KIDS IN COUNTY CARE (UM…THAT WOULD BE NICE.)

In the past year, it has come to light that kids are being over-drugged in many of California’s various foster care and juvenile systems, LA County’s included. Then more recently, we learned that powerful medications are unnecessarily being jammed down the throats of poor kids via the Medicare system. (See here and here and here for some of the latest stories.)

Tuesday, however, there was a piece of good news when the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf reported that Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health officials plan to crack down on doctors who appear to be inappropriately prescribing powerful and dangerous antipsychotic drugs to kids in LA County’s foster care and juvenile justice systems.

The question is, however, knowing the serious dangers posed by overprescribing or wrongly prescribing antipsychotics for children or teenagers, why weren’t the county’s mental health officials paying better attention?

Here’s a clip from Therolf’s story:

Social workers and child welfare advocates have long alleged that the widespread use of the drugs is fueled in part by some caretakers’ desire to make the children in their care more docile. On May 1, the county Department of Mental Health is scheduled to launch a program to use computer programs to identify doctors who have a pattern of overprescribing the medications or prescribing unsafe combinations of the drugs.

Once problematic doctors are identified, the department will recommend that judges no longer approve their prescriptions for youth under court supervision.

Additionally, Los Angeles County mental health workers will fan out across the county to randomly interview children, caregivers and doctors about the reasons behind the prescriptions and how they are working.

The hope is that the in-person reviews will allow the county to go beyond the information doctors submit in their paperwork, offering a more complete picture of the youth’s mental health and whether less-intrusive interventions were used before turning to drugs.

“We know there is really a need to do this,” said Fesia Davenport who was recently named interim director of the county Office of Child Protection, a new agency charged with coordinating services across county departments for abused and neglected children. “Once we start to look at the data I think we’ll identify patterns and really understand why the use of the drugs seems to be high.”

In February, Therolf, writing for the LA Times, noted that “51% of California’s foster youth who are prescribed mental health-related drugs took the most powerful class of the medications — antipsychotics.” (And, of course, Karen de Sá, of the San Jose Mercury News, reported extensively on the over-drugging of foster kids in her multi-part series.)

That 51% figure is deeply concerning..

The risks of using antipsychotics on kids are considerable—except in certain very closely monitored situations. (For further details, read last week’s WLA story by Taylor Walker about the most recent study released showing the disturbing overuse of antipsychotics on Medicaid kids, with California one of the five states studied.)

The crack-down Therolf reports is a very welcome step, albeit distressingly belated. Yet, another underlying issue still calls out to be discussed, namely that, every study we have on the matter shows that most kids who land in foster care or the juvenile justice system, or both, are suffering from high degrees of childhood and adolescent trauma. This kind of toxic stress almost inevitably results in some kind of emotional and/or behavioral symptoms—which are crucial to address. But, in most cases, powerful drugs are neither an appropriate nor safe way to ameliorate and heal these issues.

Of course, real healing of trauma-harmed kids is labor intensive— and cannot be done from the remove at which one can prescribe drugs.

But that’s a discussion for another day.


A JUVENILE LIFER WHO MAKES MEANING WITH ART COULD BE AMONG THOSE GETTING NEW SENTENCE IF SCOTUS AGREES

In 1999, when Kenneth Crawford was fifteen, he was the getaway driver for a brutal murder of strangers. He did not himself beat, rob and shoot Diana Lynn Algar, 39, and her friend Jose Julian Molina, 33, at a campground in Pennsylvania. The admitted killer was an 18-year-old fellow drifter and carnival worker, David Lee Hanley. Nevertheless, Crawford was tried as an adult, and given a sentence of life without parole in a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, which was still legal for juveniles as the time.

Although nearly all of his upbringing was horrific, Crawford makes no excuses for his involvement in the crime for which he was convicted.

“I was too drunk and full of pills and have only myself to blame,” he wrote to a couple who have befriended him during his time in prison.

The victims “were good people and their families did not deserve the pain and suffering they endured. I have begged the Lord for forgiveness and I believe I have been forgiven. But I will never forgive myself.”

One of the primary ways Crawford, now 31, finds meaning and solace in his life behind bars is painting miniature scenes on fallen leaves he collects. The results are remarkably beautiful.

Crawford is also one of the 2100 inmates given life sentences as teenagers, whose prison terms could possibly be affected when the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates the question, likely in September of this year, of whether their historic ruling of Miller v. Alabama should be applied retroactively. Miller, if you remember, which was presented by civil rights attorney and author, Bryan Stevenson, ruled that mandatory sentences of juvenile life without parole were unconstitutional.

Gary Gately has delved further into Crawford’s story for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Here are some clips:

Five years ago, Kenneth Carl Crawford III returned to that woods behind his childhood home in Oklahoma, but only in his mind — the only way he can go back now, perhaps the only way he’ll ever go there again in his time on this Earth.

After a storm, he had been gazing at a thick forest about 100 yards away when he noticed a bunch of leaves had blown over the high electric fences topped by razor wire and landed in the prison yard at the State Correctional Institution-Greene, here in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania.

Crawford picked up one of the leaves. “It had been a long time since I had touched a part of a tree, let alone held a piece of it in my hands,” he would write in his journal.

He kept looking at the leaf, mesmerized, nostalgic for so much of a bit of boyhood paradise lost.

Then he took the leaf back to his 8-by-12-foot cell and decided to recapture some of what he missed so dearly — and ultimately painted on it a scene right out of the woods he remembered.

He’s been painting wildlife scenes — and painting them superbly — on leaves ever since.

Crawford, 31, has plenty of time to create his miniature masterpieces. He’s serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for his involvement in a double murder at age 15 in 1999.

[SNIP]

Crawford, a lean man with the beginnings of a mustache and beard, calls the Sanfords “Mudder” and “Peepaw.” [The Sanfords are a couple who ran across his art and have gradually befriended him.]

“I’ve had ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers,’ and none of them turned out too well,” he says.

Indeed, his alcoholic father beat him, his brother and his two sisters with extension cords and switches in drunken rages and often left them home alone in their ramshackle trailer with no electricity or heat and little food. And he forced them to tend to his marijuana plants behind the trailer.

Crawford’s mother ran off with one of her boyfriends to work the carnival circuit when Ken was 5…..

When he was 9, Child Welfare Services came to remove Ken and his siblings from their father’s custody — and promised the children their lives would be much better with foster parents.

They weren’t.

Crawford recalls one 400-pound foster father who forced the children to scratch and bathe his legs because he could not reach down to them.

Another foster father showed off Ken’s ability to play football — until he outshone the man’s biological son, at which point the foster father made Ken quit the team.

A third foster father told him he’d be in prison by the time he was 18.

When Ken was 10 and wetting the bed, his foster mother screamed at him and ordered him to strip naked and lie on a towel on the living room floor. As other children in the home laughed, she put a diaper on him and made him wear it to school the next day.

He wet the bed again that night, and she forced him to sleep in the bathtub.

If he could change two things in his life, Crawford says now, he would have never have hung out with David Lee Hanley, and, if it were somehow possible, he would have eluded Child Welfare Services workers.

“If I could go back in time, I would have hid from Child Welfare Services. I should have hid. I shouldn’t have let them find us,” he says.

Speaking of his father’s abuse and neglect, he says: “That’s what we knew. It was nothing out of the ordinary for us. We still had something, and the physical abuse we grew up with I was used to.

“In foster care, it was mental abuse, and the mental abuse was much worse.”

Still, he’s quick to add that he doesn’t blame anybody for the circumstances that led to the double homicides. “I made the choices,” he says.


THE SHOOTING OF WALTER SCOTT

As most of you probably know by now, a 50-year-old black man named Walter Scott was fatally shot on Saturday in North Charleston, S.C., after being stopped for a broken tail light by a white Charleston police officer, Michael T. Slager, 33.

On Tuesday, Officer Slager was charged with murder.

Initially, Officer Slager reported that he made a traffic stop and was in foot pursuit after the subject. Next Slager reported shots fired and that the subject was down. “He took my Taser,” Slager said on the radio. Later, in the police report, Slager stated he had feared for his life because the suspect, Scott, had taken his taser in a scuffle.

However when a video taken by a bystander surfaced, and it told a very different story.

Here’s how the South Charleston Post and Courier describes what is on the video:

The three-minute clip of Saturday morning’s shooting starts [shakily], but it steadies as Slager and Scott appear to be grabbing at each other’s hands.

Slager has said through his attorney that Scott had wrested his Taser from him during a struggle.

The video appears to show Scott slapping at the officer’s hands as several objects fall to the ground. It’s not clear what the objects are.

Scott starts running away. Wires from Slager’s Taser stretch from Scott’s clothing to the officer’s hands.

With Scott more than 10 feet from Slager, the officer draws his pistol and fires seven times in rapid succession. After a brief pause, the officer fires one last time. Scott’s back bows, and he falls face first to the ground near a tree.

After the gunfire, Slager glances at the person taking the video, then talks into his radio.

The cameraman curses, and Slager yells at Scott as sirens wail.

“Put your hands behind your back,” the officer shouts before he handcuffs Scott as another lawman runs to Scott’s side.

Scott died there. [Actually, in the beginning Scott appears to be alive.]

Slager soon jogs back to where he fired his gun and picks up something from the ground. He walks back to Scott’s body and drops the object.

At no time, does Slager or the next officer on the scene, attempt to help the dying Scott, although one of the officers searches him and then eventually feels for a pulse.

According to the Post & Courier, Mr. Scott “had a history of arrests related to contempt of court charges for failing to pay child support. The only accusation of violence against Scott during his lifetime came through an assault and battery charge in 1987″—in other words, 27 years ago, when Scott was 23.

A family member told reporters that Scott likely ran because he didn’t want to be arrested for back child support.

In a statement released Tuesday night, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) said, “What happened in this case is not acceptable in South Carolina.” Senator Tim Scott (R) said “The senseless shooting and taking of Walter Scott’s life was absolutely unnecessary and avoidable.” Senator Scott said that he would be watching the case closely.

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care, juvenile justice, law enforcement, Los Angeles County, LWOP Kids, mental health, Youth | 7 Comments »

Prisoner Reentry Study, LA County Slow to Stop Funding Problem-Ridden Foster Care Group Home, another troubled CA Group Home, and Rolling Stone

April 6th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

STUDY TAKES A CLOSE LOOK AT FORMER OFFENDERS’ PERSONAL HISTORIES AS THEY REENTER COMMUNITIES

A team consisting of Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, Rutgers criminologist Anthony Braga, and Rhiana Kohl of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections followed 122 male and female state prisoners as they reentered their Boston neighborhoods between 2012 and 2013.

The Boston Reentry Report researchers aimed to analyze the connection between poverty and violence by recording the life stories of the participants through many interviews. The researchers identified a number of meaningful commonalities between the former offenders. They experienced a high degree of childhood trauma (including violence at home), received little help at school, and were often previously victims of the same violent crimes for which they were later incarcerated. The recidivism rate was also higher among those who were supervised upon release, mostly for violating their probation or parole.

The team will continue to track these men and women through the coming months and years.

The Marshall Project has a good run-down of the main findings of the report. Here’s a clip:

Getting a job can be transformative — but very difficult.

Previous research shows employment is one of the few proven safeguards against recidivism, but the study participants were not an eminently employable group. Only 59 percent were employed before they were incarcerated. Six months after reentry, 57 percent of the men were working, and just 27 percent of the women — even though more than half of those women had held jobs before they were incarcerated. The gender disparity could have several causes. Women in the study were more likely to be mentally ill or drug addicted, and were also much more likely to have financial or housing support from family members, perhaps making employment less of a pressing necessity.

Of those men who did find work, most were in low-wage, temporary jobs. (An exception was a handful of white men, including Patrick, who used family connections to win union employment at up to $40 per hour.) Western said there is little evidence that former prisoners are being aided by a 2010 Massachusetts law that “banned the box” on job applications, making it illegal for companies to ask applicants if they have a criminal record. Employers are still able to look up criminal histories later in the interview process. “The theory was that if you delay the criminal background check, the employer has the opportunity to collect other info and it will offset the negative effect,” Western said. “But we’re not seeing much evidence of that.”

A paradox: the more closely supervised are more likely to end up back in prison.

The researchers have yet to release their findings on which former prisoners in the study were most likely to return to prison or jail, and why. Yet Western said there is a paradox emerging in the data: Those on parole and probation, and thus under the closest supervision, were more likely to be re-incarcerated. They were arrested most often not for committing new crimes, but for violating the rules of probation or parole.

Automatic re-incarceration for those violations “needs careful review,” Western said. “At times it feels like the system is simply cavalier in its treatment of the deprivation of liberty.” The study’s overall findings, he believes, should increase our empathy for people who go to prison, most of whom come from “brutal poverty.

From the point of view of justice, we have to ask ourselves if we were in these situations and we were to encounter these complex combinations of circumstances, could we be confident that we would exercise our moral agency to do something different? For me, that’s a really challenging question.”

And here’s an interview clip from the reentry report:

Interviewer: When you were growing up was anyone in your household ever a victim of a crime?

Yes.

Interviewer: Who was that?

My mother.

Interviewer: Was that just one time or more than one time?

She used to get beat up by her boyfriends.

Interviewer: How old were you when that was going on?

Between twelve and fourteen, I believe. Could have been earlier,
but I probably don’t remember earlier ages.

Interviewer: So, what would happen after one of the boyfriends would
beat her up?

Well, while it was going on, I would run in there with my Louisville slugger bat that I used to sleep with.

Interviewer: And did you ever get involved?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. Every single time.

Interviewer: And then what would happen?

Well, the very last time when I hit one of her boyfriends, they fell down the stairs, with the bat, and then… my mother basically hit me and said why did I do that. So I just left the house and went to live with my grandmother for a few years… I was about fourteen, yeah.


AFTER REPORTS OF EMBEZZLEMENT AND ABUSE, AND FORMAL CHARGES FROM THE DA’S OFFICE, LA COUNTY FINALLY CUTS TIES WITH FOSTER CARE PROVIDER

LA County paid Little People’s World, a non-profit running several foster care group homes, around $2.5 million annually despite multiple child abuse and embezzlement allegations.

Two investigations (in 2011 and 2013) by the county auditor-controller found that owners CSJ and Kitaji Kidogo had possibly embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars, in part, by buying property with the money, and giving themselves and their daughters large raises.

During that same time period, the California Department of Social Services investigated two reports that staffer Rashard McMorris had been abusive to children in his care. One video reportedly showed McMorris throwing a kid against the wall so hard that the boy’s head broke through the drywall. The other surveillance tape allegedly showed McMorris dragging a 6-year-old on the ground through the facility. Both times he received a slap on the wrist and more training. The third report of abuse in 2014 finally got McMorris fired.

Amazingly, the LA County Department of Children and Family Services did not break ties with Little People’s World until late 2014, when LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey filed embezzlement charges against the Kidogos.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has more on the issue and its implications. Here’s a clip:

The criminal allegations against the Kidogos raise questions about the effectiveness of reforms implemented in recent years by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services to better monitor the foster care providers it hires. Two years ago, the agency hired additional staff to guard against financial misconduct following a series of stories by The Times that revealed that money intended for the care of children was often misspent by contract providers.

In some cases, money was spent on personal vacations, luxury cars, fine china and salaries for employees who didn’t exist, The Times found. More than $11 million of county funds allegedly had been misappropriated by nonprofits between 2000 and 2010, county audits show.

[SNIP]

In 2011, state regulators reviewed surveillance video of Little People’s World staffer Rashard McMorris dragging a 6-year-old across the floor and into another room. He was given a two-day suspension and training on how to respect foster youths’ rights, according to county investigation reports.

Two years later, the records show, investigators from the California Department of Social Services reviewed another video of McMorris pushing an 11-year-old into a wall. The force of the child’s head hitting the wall left a hole in the drywall, the records state. McMorris received training on emergency intervention techniques and was placed on conditional employment status under a plan approved by the state, according to the county reports.

Neither incident was reported to law enforcement, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services said.

[SNIP]

Dove, one of the Kidogos’ attorneys, said the embezzlement charges were at odds with years of communication his clients had with the DCFS. He said Little People’s World had been a licensed contractor for 30 years, often passing county audits, and “received numerous accolades” from the department.

“DCFS regularly drops the ball on training and oversight of its contractors. Then it abdicates its shortcomings to the district attorney’s office for prosecution,” Dove said. “DCFS should focus on getting its own house in order. Ultimately, the victims of this process may be the children in the foster care system.”


CALIFORNIA GROUP HOME SHUT DOWN BY POLICE MAY LEAD TO CHILD WELFARE REFORM

ProPublica’s Joaquin Sapien has an excellent longread about the takedown of a toxic group home for troubled kids in California, and how it sparked real reform action in the state Department of Social Services. Sapien’s story follows Alex Barschat-Li, who arrived at the level 14 (the highest, most restrictive level) group home called FamiliesFirst when he was just 12-years-old. The downward spiral began soon after Alex’s arrival, when the cash-strapped facility had to drastically downsize its staff and services. And when FamiliesFirst decided to house girls of all ages in the same space, the environment became even more volatile.

Kids (including Alex) ran away frequently, slept on the streets, and sometimes hitchhiked. There were reports of rape and drug use. One week the police responded to a grand total of 74 calls.

Davis Police finally raided and shut down FamiliesFirst mid-2013.

The FamiliesFirst debacle has contributed to the conversation about how to best protect kids in the child welfare system. The California Department of Social Services delivered a report to state lawmakers detailing how to keep the FamiliesFirst horrors from happening again. Among other recommendations, the report called for an end to group homes except as a short-term placement for kids.

The report’s much-needed recommendations have been drafted into bill-form and could be signed into law by July 1.

Here are some clips from Sapien’s story (which was co-published with the California Sunday Magazine):

Alternately affectionate and sullen, Alex was prone to radical mood swings, speaking in a rapid staccato one minute, turning almost monosyllabic the next. According to an evaluation report sent to Wendy six months into his stay, he suffered from “an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.” A minor annoyance or a denial of a privilege could set him off, and he would hurl himself at whoever irked him.

In time, though, he began to show signs of progress. In the fall of 2012, he moved into a dorm called Adventurer, which was led by a group of experienced staffers who connected with him. He was still easily distracted and easily angered, but the extremes had leveled off. Where once he threw tantrums during chores, he would now take a break in his room, gather his composure, and get back to the task at hand. He was less confrontational, less violent — happier.

Toward the end of 2012, Alex noticed that there were fewer counselors on campus — he had heard there had been layoffs — and that they seemed to be under more stress than usual. They also had become more lenient. He could now walk off the campus without anyone stopping him, and whenever someone had a manic episode, the staff was less likely to employ restraints, the term for the physical holds staff are allowed to use to prevent children from harming themselves or others.

At first, Alex left campus by himself, often hanging out at a bicycle shop where the employees liked him. He went to a Dairy Queen and moped until an employee gave him an order of fries on the house. Soon he was tagging along with a group of eight to twelve children from the home who stole food and clothing from stores around Davis. They started staying out all night, drinking alcohol, smoking pot, and having sex in parks. Before long he and others were hitchhiking out of town. Alex got as far as Sacramento.

“We had different jobs for different kids,” says Alex, whose task was to shoplift. “Kids who begged, kids who found bikes for us, kids who went back to campus to get blankets and stuff. We’d be gone for days.”

Early in the spring of 2013, Alex and his friends took over a homeless encampment on the outskirts of a park, a tangle of blankets and mattresses, abandoned furniture and trash, all jammed into a thicket dense enough to obstruct the view of passersby. It was one of several places where the children began to sleep at night. Another favorite, which Alex calls Plan B, was behind a Comcast building alongside Interstate 80.

[SNIP]

The report called for increased minimum qualifications and training for group-care workers; more-varied therapeutic services; and better screening of children to more appropriately determine their needs and where they should be placed.

Most dramatically, the report called for group homes to be eliminated, or at least limited to offering short-term stays. “It is well-documented,” the report states, “that residing long-term in group homes with shift-based care is not in the best interest of children and youth. Not only is it developmentally inappropriate, it frequently creates lifelong institutionalized behaviors and contributes to higher levels of involvement with the juvenile justice system and to poor educational outcomes.”

As long as group homes exist, they will still present challenges of oversight. The Department of Social Services report says little about improving its own performance in inspecting and investigating the homes. To many, the department has long been poorly positioned or equipped to monitor Level 14 group homes. Inspections are required only once every five years, and records show they are perfunctory, mostly involving a review of physical conditions, food supplies, and water temperatures. The inspections typically do not include interviews with residents and staff or extensive examinations of records. The department employees charged with performing the inspections are not required to have backgrounds in social work, even though they are often called to look into what for an experienced police officer are the most sensitive kinds of cases — sex crimes and battery involving minors.


REPORT FINDS ROLLING STONE IGNORED “BASIC, EVEN ROUTINE JOURNALISTIC PRACTICE” WITH UVA RAPE STORY

Last November when Rolling Stone Magazine published a story about a violent gang rape in a University of Virginia frat house, doubts about the rape allegations and the reporter’s due diligence quickly emerged.

A report from the Columbia School of Journalism (commissioned by Rolling Stone) found that author Sabrina Rubin Erdely relied solely on the account of he alleged rape victim “Jackie.” Erderly did not speak with Jackie’s three friends who were quoted in the story, nor did she speak with any of the alleged attackers. The report faults Rolling Stone’s fact-checking and says the sensitive subject matter should not have caused the magazine to stifle doubts about Jackie’s account.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner said the “fabulist” source, Jackie, was where the trouble started.

The New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya has more on the report. Here are some clips:

In an interview discussing Columbia’s findings, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece’s flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Ms. Erdely would continue to write for the magazine. The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

[SNIP]

The first misstep during the reporting process, the Columbia report said, was that Ms. Erdely did not seek to independently contact three of Jackie’s friends, who were quoted in the piece, using pseudonyms, expressing trepidation at the idea of Jackie telling the authorities that she had been assaulted. The quotes came from Jackie’s recollection of the conversation. Those friends later cast doubt on Jackie’s story in interviews with The Washington Post and denied saying the words Rolling Stone had attributed to them. The three told the report’s authors that they would have made the same denials to Rolling Stone if they had been contacted.

Rolling Stone, the report said, also did not provide the fraternity with enough information to adequately respond to questions from the magazine. Later, when the article had been published, the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, said it did not host a function on the weekend Jackie had specified.

And the magazine failed to identify Jackie’s attacker, the report said. It was content to give him a pseudonym, Drew, when Jackie resisted Ms. Erdely’s request to help find him. The fraternity, The Post and the police have been unable to find anyone who matches Jackie’s description of Drew.

The reporting errors by Ms. Erdely were compounded by insufficient scrutiny and skepticism from editors, the report said. And the fact-checking process relied heavily on four hours of conversations with Jackie.

Posted in Foster Care, law enforcement | No Comments »

Feds Investigate Rampant Drugging of Poor Children with Antipsychotics

April 1st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

ALARMING NEW FEDERAL REPORT ON DOCS OVER-PRESCRIBING POWERFUL ANTIPSYCHOTIC DRUGS TO CHILDREN ON MEDICAID

A new report from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General shines some light on the excessive use of antipsychotic drugs to treat poor children (many of them in foster care) on Medicaid.

Researchers requested records from 2011 on 687 claims in five states: California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. They received information on 485 of the requests (many of the other records were incomplete or nonexistent). These particular states were chosen because they comprised 39% of all Medicaid payments for antipsychotics.

These “second-generation antipsychotics” (SGAs) are often used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism-related irritability. Because minimal clinical research has been completed on how the SGAs affect kids, and there are very specific age-ranges approved for use of the antipsychotics, many doctors prescribe these medications for conditions that are not considered medically accepted.

Thus, kids often receive the wrong treatment, are given a dangerous cocktail of psychotropic drugs, and experience severe side-effects (like suicidal thoughts, paranoia, and hallucinations) and other potentially problematic effects like weight gain, none of which are properly monitored.

In 67% of the claims, the researchers found what they call quality-of-care concerns. Just under half of claims showed two or more of these particular concerns.

A whopping 53% of cases were poorly monitored. Kids vital signs and blood pressure were not regularly tracked, they were not checked for involuntary movements, height and weight were not monitored, and doctors did not run lab work to check for liver and blood issues.

In 41% of kids’ records, there was either no explanation as to why the antipsychotics were prescribed, or they were prescribed for an inappropriate reason. In over one-third of cases, these drugs were prescribed to treat conditions listed on the medication’s FDA boxed warning. (An example of this would be prescribing an antipsychotic medication to a child with major depressive disorder, despite an FDA warning label that says the drug may cause suicidal thoughts in children with major depressive disorders).

Other distressing patterns included prescribing kids too many drugs at once (37%), keeping kids on the antipsychotics for too long (34%), giving the wrong dose (23%), prescribing to kids too young (17%), and negative side-effects (7%).

In one particular case, a child diagnosed with bipolar disorder was prescribed six psychotropic drugs at once. Three were antipsychotics. A vague mention of hallucinations was the only explanation for the heavy drugging. The 16-year-old suffered through insomnia, “paranoia, hostility, unstable mood, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts” as well as significant weight gain, and swelling of the hands and feet. When the teen was taken off these drugs, the originally reported hallucinations vanished.

Only in 8% of the cases were kids’ prescribed these drugs for any of the medically accepted reasons. And of the five states, only New York restricted Medicaid coverage for these drugs outside of medically accepted reasons (unfortunately, 3,366 prescriptions were covered in violation of New York’s policy).

According to the report’s lead investigator, Michala Walker, antipsychotics “should only be used for a medically appropriate reason and, when they’re used, they must be very carefully managed to ensure safety and quality care.”

The report urges the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to partner with state medicaid programs to review how antipsychotics are prescribed to children, and to conduct regular reviews of the medical records of medicaid-covered kids prescribed the drugs, and to work with states to come up with ways to boost oversight. CMS has agreed with these three recommendations.

Karen de Sa, who has been doing some powerful investigative reporting on how and why California’s foster kids are so heavily medicated, also reported on this new data.

Posted in children and adolescents, Foster Care, health care, mental health, The Feds | 1 Comment »

SCOTUS to Consider How Cops Deal with Mentally Ill, Asking the Right Questions About Police Killings, Gov. Brown Sez Hire Ex-inmates, and Trafficked Foster Kids

March 23rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

US HIGH COURT TO HEAR ARGUMENTS ON HOW POLICE HANDLE ARMED, MENTALLY ILL PEOPLE

This week, the US Supreme Court will consider in what capacity law enforcement officers must adhere to the Americans With Disabilities Act during an encounter with a mentally ill (or otherwise disabled) person who is armed and violent.

In San Francisco v. Sheehan, officers shot a woman with schizoaffective disorder in a group home who, in midst of a psychiatric crisis, had locked herself in a room with a knife after threatening her social worker. Sheehan survived the shooting. She has since sued the police department for resorting first to lethal force instead of attempting to deescalate the confrontation.

The Associated Press’ Tami Abdollah and Sam Hananel have more on the case and why it is so important. Here’s a clip:

Law enforcement groups are keeping a close eye on the Supreme Court case, which they say could undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk, force departments to spend thousands in new training and open them to additional liability.

The ADA was designed to regulate institutional policies, not an individual officer’s behavior, said Darrel W. Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which filed a brief supporting San Francisco.

Stephens said that while departments around the country receive training to de-escalate and avoid using force in a situation with an unstable person, it’s not always possible to do so.

But mental health advocates say the ADA requires police to act less aggressively when arresting or detaining people with disabilities. Claudia Center, a senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s disability rights program, said the ADA should apply to all situations, especially emergencies when the disabled most need to be accommodated.

“This case is not unusual. There are a lot of Sheehan situations out there where there is an opportunity not to rush in, and take a moment,” Center said.


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC: RADLEY BALKO SAYS WE ASK THE WRONG QUESTIONS ABOUT POLICE KILLINGS

Last summer, Dallas police officers shot and killed Jason Harrison, a mentally ill man who police say threatened them with a screwdriver. Late last week, Harrison’s family members, who are suing the Dallas Police Dept., released footage captured by one of the officers’ body cameras during the encounter. (You can watch it here.)

The police department concluded their internal investigation into whether or not the officers broke any laws and chose to turn it over to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko says that instead of just looking at whether the killing was lawful and within department policy, we should also ask whether the killing was necessary, or whether it could have been deescalated by the officers. Balko also says that if the killing of this man suffering from mental illness could have been reasonably avoided, we must also determine what needs to change in order to prevent such shootings in the future. Here’s a clip:

Asking if a police shooting was legal tells us nothing about whether or not we should change the law. Asking whether or not it was within a police agency’s policies and procedures tells us nothing about the wisdom of those policies and procedures. Of course, both of those questions are important if your primary interest is in punishing police officers for these incidents. But while it can certainly be frustrating to see cops get a pass over and over again, even in incidents that seem particularly egregious, focusing on the individual officers involved hasn’t (and won’t) stopped people from getting killed.

Let’s go back to that Dallas shooting. Unfortunately, the video camera doesn’t capture the critical moments immediately prior to the shooting. But it does capture the initial police contact with Harrison. Let’s assume for a moment that the police account of the incident is 100 percent true — that Harrison did come at them with the screwdriver. The question we should be asking isn’t whether or not the police decision to shoot Harrison at that moment was justified. The question we should be asking is whether the interaction ever should have reached that moment. Or, to go back to our more basic question: Was this shooting necessary?

The video strongly suggests that it wasn’t. Why were two patrol officers responding to a call about a possibly schizophrenic man? Would it be better for a mental health professional to have accompanied them? If Dallas police officers are going to be the first responders to calls about mentally ill people who have possibly become dangerous, are they at least given training on how to interact with those people? Are they taught how to deescalate these situations?

From the video, it seems clear that these particular police officers did the escalating, not Harrison. It’s the cops who begin yelling and who take a confrontational stance. Yes, Harrison was holding a small screwdriver. And yes, in the right circumstances, even a small screwdriver can do a lot of damage. That doesn’t mean you pull your gun on everyone who is holding a small screwdriver. Now, there’s probably nothing illegal about a police officer unnecessarily escalating a situation with his words or his body. There’s certainly nothing illegal about his failure to deescalate.

But that’s precisely why Was this illegal? is the wrong question. The better question is, Was this an acceptable outcome? And if the answer is no, then the follow-up question is, What needs to change to stop this from happening again?


GOV BROWN CALLS ON CALIFORNIA BUSINESSES TO EMPLOY EX-OFFENDERS TO REDUCE REVIDIVISM

At a employer forum at Merritt College in Oakland, California Governor Jerry Brown urged businesses to hire former offenders to give them the means to successfully transition back into their communities. Brown called the issue one of public safety as well as about “being a human being.”

KQED’s Sara Hossaini has the story. Here are some clips:

Brown says a lack of work will keep them locked out of a permanent place in their communities and, too often, locked up behind bars once again.

“This work I see is, yes, about public safety, but it’s also about being a human being,” says Brown.

[SNIP]

Now, Brown is hoping that providing employers with information and incentives will encourage more of them to do their part. That means tax breaks, talent matching, bond reimbursements and training subsidies of between $5-10,000 per employee.

Businesses can also take part in a Joint Venture Program that offers what officials call attractive benefits for employing people while they’re still in custody, in the hopes of providing them a seamless transition once they’re out.


LA COUNTY DISAGREES ABOUT HOW TO KEEP SEX-TRAFFICKED KIDS FROM BEING PULLED BACK TO THE STREETS

Within the last few years, LA County has shifted away from criminalizing and locking up sexually exploited minors as “prostitutes,” instead treating them as victims and diverting them from juvenile detention into foster care. But placing trafficked girls into foster care and connecting them with services and mentors does not always work. Sometimes the young girls run away, and return to the streets and their pimps.

The LA County Board of Supervisors and head of the Department of Children and Family Services, Philip Browning, don’t all agree on how to address this complex problem.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

…as county supervisors debate establishing a treatment center for these youth, the issue of locking up foster children has become a quagmire.

On one side are those who say the state should act like a responsible parent to stop children from leaving their home to meet pimps and johns. On the other side are those who say that locking up children mirrors the confinement that predators subject them to, and will ultimately fail to cure the problem.

“This is really the issue that everyone keeps coming back to,” said Allison Newcombe, an attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights who represents sex-trafficked children. “Everyone has such strong opinions.”

Law enforcement officials say criminal gangs have increasingly turned from selling drugs to selling children for sex because a drug can be sold once, but a child can be sold repeatedly. According to the California Child Welfare Council, a child’s life expectancy after being involved in sex trafficking is seven years, with AIDS and homicide being the leading causes of death.

Pimps capitalize on the porous barriers between foster care facilities and the outside world, advocates say, by calling vulnerable children, sending them letters and infiltrating group homes with young recruiters. In some cases, the pimps persuade children to get tattoos of their names.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who opposes efforts to allow locking up foster children who are at risk of being lured into sex trafficking, said the recruitment for prostitution in the county’s juvenile detention facilities proves that confining children is not a solution.

Leading the push to establish a locked facility for some foster youth are Los Angeles County’s child welfare chief, Philip Browning, and Supervisor Don Knabe. Both are lobbying Sacramento lawmakers to change laws that currently prohibit confining foster care youth who are at risk.

Browning said he reluctantly came to support such an option after social workers watched children as young as 10 and 11 run from county foster care facilities to rendezvous with pimps and johns.

“We have a small number of youth in foster care where our current programs simply haven’t worked,” Browning said. “Frankly, I’m not certain that the current facilities provide the level of security that I would like.”

Posted in Child sexual abuse, DCFS, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Foster Care, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Mental Illness, Reentry | No Comments »

Scott Budnick, For-profit Foster Care, the Youth Welcome Center, and Reentry Employment

March 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

SCOTT BUDNICK: FROM PRODUCING THE HANGOVER MOVIES TO FOUNDING THE ANTI-RECIDIVISM COALITION

Jesse Katz has an excellent longread profile for the California Sunday Magazine on Scott Budnick and his journey from pre-med student to Hollywood producer to full-time criminal justice reform champion.

Budnick began mentoring kids in Sylmar’s juvenile detention center more than a decade ago through the Inside Out Writers program.

Budnick, executive producer of the Hangover series, left Hollywood behind in 2013 in order to take on criminal justice activism full-time. Budnick says he has Dede Gardner, producer of 12 Years a Slave, to thank for his decision.

After the split, Budnick founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition with a $400,000 grant from California Endowment. While ARC was in its earliest stages, Budnick was instrumental in pushing SB 260 (a law that gave a second chance at parole to kids who were convicted of murder before the age of 18 and sentenced to life-without-parole) through legislature and into Governor Jerry Brown’s hands. Budnick also used ARC as a platform to campaign for the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014.

Here are some clips from Katz’s profile:

If Budnick were a priest or a lawyer, even a counselor or a coach, these jailhouse pilgrimages would be easier to explain — his declarations not so incongruous. But until a bit more than a year ago, Budnick had a day job as a Hollywood producer, and not one devoted to bringing socially conscious, inspirational tales to the screen. As the number two at Green Hat Films, Budnick executive-produced the raunchy, uproarious Hangover movies, the top-grossing R-rated comedy franchise in history. For years it meant living a kind of double life, racing from the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, interrupting conference calls to accept collect calls, burning through girlfriends once they realized he would rather be, as his official bio says, “walking the tiers of California jails and prisons on his nights and weekends” than a red carpet.

“These kids,” Budnick says, “are what give me life.”

At once earnest and hyperbolic, loyal and schmoozy, Budnick can come across as a character in one of his own films. When people first meet him, whether it be an inmate or a warden, a politician or a philanthropist, the initial reaction is almost always the same: “Who the fuck are you and what are you about?” his longtime mentor, Javier Stauring, who oversees the L.A. Archdiocese’s youth-detention ministry, says with a laugh. Budnick is not the likeliest crusader, in other words, to be redefining how California punishes and redeems.

[SNIP]

The break was unlikely, though, only if you did not know Budnick and his growing distaste for a business rife, he says, with “ego and selfishness and people that make every decision out of fear.” It was no coincidence, either, that he took his leave the same year that both The Hangover Part III and 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, the fierce moral compass of one making the other look even more aimless. After a day of guiding Dede Gardner, one of 12 Years’s Oscar-winning producers, around juvenile hall, Budnick credits her as the person “who changed my life, who made the movie that kicked me out of the business.”

Forgoing a paycheck at first and, he says, tapping much of his savings, Budnick began 2014 as a full-time activist, putting everything into the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — arc — a support and advocacy nonprofit he had begun in his garage. arc now has a $1.2 million budget, a paid staff of six, and an office in the downtown L.A. building that houses the rooftop lounge Perch. Instead of clients, arc has what Budnick calls “members” — 160 formerly incarcerated men and women, murderers and carjackers and tweakers — nearly all of whom he met and mentored while they were locked up.

“He is kind of an oddity,” says Robert Downey Jr., the onetime recidivist turned world’s highest-paid actor, who serves on arc’s board of directors. “In politics, usually, you try to align yourself with things that make you look as good as possible and disconnect with anything that’s the least bit tainted.”

Befitting a veteran of broad commercial entertainment, Budnick has chosen his moment shrewdly. After decades of throw-away-the-key policies, the nation is again considering the philosophy of second chances. With a growing number of conservatives daunted by the cost of mass incarceration, libertarians dismayed by the broad license to police that drug laws give the government, evangelicals committed to the promise of personal transformation, and the most crime-ravaged communities also the most crippled by tough-on-crime tactics, the movement defies easy labels.

California, a pioneer of three-strike sentencing laws, is now at a different forefront. In recent years, through ballot initiatives and legislative measures, the state has given breaks once unthinkable to thousands of felons: parole dates, sentence reductions, educational alternatives, employment opportunities. Budnick, campaigner and noodge, has had a hand in it all.

“When I first heard about him, I have to be honest with you: A white Hollywood guy? He can’t be real,” says Robert K. Ross, president and ceo of the California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation. Then Budnick invited him to visit Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A., where Ross was so moved by Budnick’s rapport with the inmates, he helped launch arc with a $400,000 grant. “Scott Budnick,” Ross says, “is the most extraordinary force in the state of California on badly needed incarceration and justice reform.”

[SNIP]

In the long run, Budnick dreams of removing every young person, 18 to 25, from the adult prison system and placing them on a campus with educational and therapeutic programs. He has been sketching plans for what he calls the California Leadership Academy for more than a decade — a Warner Bros. set designer helped with the earliest diagrams — and since his recent appointments to both the California Community Colleges Board of Governors and the Board of State and Community Corrections, he now has more platforms for making it happen. While still years away, the project just received an $865,000 endorsement in Governor Brown’s budget. This sweeping proposal, with all of its promise and uncertainty, is not rooted in an especially religious perspective, nor is it particularly ideological. If pressed, Budnick will repeat the axiom “hurt people hurt” — and its corollary, “healed people heal.”

We’ve written about Budnick before (and, full disclosure: he is a pal of WLA’s).


THE DEATH OF ALEXANDRIA HILL…AND THE PROBLEM OF PRIVATIZED FOSTER CARE

In July of 2013, two-year-old Alexandria Hill was murdered by her foster mother, a woman screened and supervised by Mentor Network, a huge for-profit foster care agency.

After Alexandria’s death, Mother Jones’ Brian Joseph dove into an 18-month investigation into the world of privatized foster care.

Overloaded and understaffed child welfare departments across the US turn to private foster care companies to pick up the slack. These for-profit companies receive a bunch of tax dollars to vet potential foster families, train them, place kids in their care, and supervise them.

And there’s not much oversight.

Joseph found that very few states are even keeping a record of how many kids are in private foster care. No states are collecting data on how many kids involved in private foster care are being abused. And no one is running the numbers on the cost difference between privately-run and government-run foster care.

Here are some clips from Joseph’s investigation:

With blond hair and blue eyes, Alexandria stood 32 inches tall and weighed just 30 pounds. She liked kitties and the color purple….

At about a quarter to seven that evening, Clemon Small woke from a nap and left for a meeting at a nearby restaurant, leaving Sherill alone with Alexandria and the infant. About 15 minutes later, Sherill dialed his number, then 911.

First at the scene was Ward Roddam, the chief of the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department, who was so surprised to find no one in the front yard waving him down that he called dispatch to make sure he had the right address. Inside, he encountered what he would describe as one of the strangest scenes in his 25-year career: Alexandria’s limp body lay on the floor while Clemon sat on the couch and Sherill talked to 911. Roddam found mucus on Alexandria’s mouth, suggesting that CPR, which foster parents are trained to administer, had never been attempted.

On the witness stand 15 months later, Roddam was asked if the Smalls seemed panicked. “‘Panic’ does not describe it at all,” he said. They seemed “very calm.”

What happened in Rockdale that night would be the subject of a weeklong trial in the fall of 2014, focusing on the care of Alexandria. But it also opened a window into the vast and opaque world of private foster care agencies—for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations that are increasingly taking on the role of monitoring the nation’s most vulnerable children. The agency involved in Small’s case was the Lone Star branch of the Mentor Network, a $1.2 billion company headquartered in Boston that specializes in finding caretakers, or “mentors,” for a range of populations, from adults with brain injuries to foster children. With 4,000 children in its care in 14 states, Mentor is one of the largest players in the business of private foster care, a fragmented industry of mostly local and regional providers that collect hundreds of millions in tax dollars annually while receiving little scrutiny from government authorities.

Squeezed by high caseloads and tight budgets, state and local child welfare agencies are increasingly leaving the task of recruiting, screening, training, and monitoring foster parents to these private agencies. In many places, this arrangement has created a troubling reality in which the government can seize your children, but then outsource the duty of keeping them safe—and duck responsibility when something goes wrong.

Nationally, no one tracks how many children are in private foster homes, or how these homes perform compared to those vetted directly by the government. As part of an 18-month investigation, I asked every state whether it at least knew how many children in its foster system had been placed in privately screened homes. Very few could tell me. For the eight states that did, the total came to at least 72,000 children in 2011. Not one of the states had a statistically valid dataset comparing costs, or rates of abuse or neglect, in privately versus publicly vetted homes.

[SNIP]

The bottom line for private foster care agencies—whether large, for-profit corporations or small, local nonprofits—is tied to the number of foster parents on their roster, and thus their ability to place children quickly. Given that every foster parent represents potential revenue, Zullo says, an agency may be more likely to overlook sketchy personal histories or potential safety hazards. There’s little incentive, he adds, to seek out reasons to reject a family, to investigate problems after children are placed, or to do anything else that could result in a child leaving the agency’s program. And as tough as the margins are for nonprofit agencies, the perverse incentives are exacerbated at for-profit agencies that need to make money for owners or shareholders.

“What happens,” Zullo says, “is the lives of these children become commodities.”

In 2013, the California spent $308 million on private foster care. Joseph was given a glimpse inside Positive Option, a small Sacramento set-up that is in charge of 70 kids. Here’s a clip from what he found there:

Kovill, the cofounder, is an energetic 82-year-old with a white beard who continues to manage the organization on a day-to-day basis. Kovill feels a special kinship with the foster children he serves: He says he was abandoned by his father when he was about seven and given to a shoemaker as a laborer. “Foster care is a good system,” Kovill said. “I wish it had been there when I was a kid.” (Kovill told me he changed his name long ago to break from the family that abandoned him. He wouldn’t tell me what his old name was.)

Kovill told me the margins are tight in private foster care, especially if child welfare is your top priority. He said he once had to sell land he owned in Arizona to keep Positive Option, which has annual revenues of about $1.2 million, afloat. Some of his employees report taking 10 percent pay cuts several years ago for the same reason, cuts that remain in effect today. “I’m still a businessman, and I still try to stay in the black as best I can,” Kovill told me one day in the cramped office he shares with his wife, Luan, who works at the agency for free. “But if it meant a car seat for a baby, if it meant diapers for a baby, if it meant safety for a child, the bottom line is gone.”

Kovill took responsibility for Positive Option’s problems, saying they came about in part because he was distracted by the agency’s financial struggles during the recession. “I just trusted everybody to do what I do—I work hard,” Kovill said, referring to some former employees he eventually fired. “I figured they did too. Well, you can’t do that.”


WHERE DISPLACED FOSTER KIDS GO TO WAIT

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf visited LA County’s Youth Welcome Center, the original purpose of which was to house kids new to the system while social workers placed them with foster parents or in group homes. Instead, the center, located at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, has come to serve as a sort of purgatory for hard-to-place kids, the ones who caregivers send back, like kids in their late teens, LGBTQ kids, and kids suffering from mental illness.

Here are some clips from Therolf’s story:

The center — outfitted with couches and televisions — was designed as a comfortable waiting room for children newly removed from their families; it was intended to house them for just one night while the staff tried to place them with a foster home.

Instead, the center has evolved into a holding facility for the most difficult to place youths who have been thrown out of foster homes. No one is turned away.

The facility is the last stop for some of the most desperate and extreme cases, a stark window on the difficulties of a child protection system that is burdened with maddening bureaucracy, a shortage of foster homes and crushing demands from a growing number of troubled children.

The youths who end up here are often older teenagers, sexual minorities, mentally ill or medically fragile. A significant number are involved in prostitution.

They stay here for nights, sometimes weeks, because there are so few homes willing to take them. Sometimes, the children refuse the homes offered to them and leave to live on their own. They come back sporadically to the center for a shower and a night’s rest — a respite from a life on the streets.

[SNIP]

Two of the system’s most debilitating pressures — the desperate shortage of foster homes and the swelling ranks of foster youths involved in prostitution — have conspired here to make this a place where social workers feel as though they are on a never-ending chase to find lasting foster homes for the children.

On this night, out of nearly 30 youths, only one has just entered foster care for the first time: Ruben, a small 13-year-old boy swimming in an oversized T-shirt….

Ashley spent her days in the department’s Torrance office to be near the social worker who was assigned to find her a new home. The worker was too busy to see her, however, and each night, she returned in a van to the Youth Welcome Center, where social workers take over the search on nights and weekends.

“When are you guys going to finally take me back to school?” Ashley asked the employees at the door.

“That’s not our job here at the YWC,” the woman with the clipboard replied.

“That’s not fair,” said Ashley, who was two grades behind in school.

She hoped to become a choreographer or child psychologist. She said, “I want to get my education.”


OP-ED: GOV. JOBS PROGRAM FOR RELEASED (AND SOON TO BE RELEASED) INMATES WOULD BE MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL

Boston saw a record-breaking “snowpocalypse” in February that is on track to break an even larger record: the snowiest season in Boston’s recorded history. All that snow buried streets, train tracks, cars, and even turned Nantucket waves into slush.

In addition to union workers and the National Guard, Boston has put county jail inmates to work shoveling the city out from under the snow. The inmates provide the labor for pennies on the hour.

In an op-ed for the Atlantic, Bruce Western and Linda Forman Naval say that local municipalities, taxpayers, and inmates would be better served if the government created a reentry job program—one that pays more than $.20 per hour and employs both incarcerated and newly released inmates.

The public maintenance jobs program would give those locked-up and recently released inmates a chance to make the money necessary for successfully transitioning back into life on the outside: for food, shelter, and paying back their debts. It would also fill a need on the city and county levels by building a public maintenance workforce, and on the individual taxpayer level by targeting recidivism.

Here’s a clip from the op-ed:

A regular government jobs program for formerly-incarcerated people could play a valuable role in maintaining public areas and infrastructure while assisting the transition from the prison to the community. Such a program would also provide a readily available workforce that could respond in moments of catastrophe.

Better yet, extending the program to provide real jobs to those who are about to be released would help them build a nest-egg to transition back into society. Pay all these workers the prevailing wage, and they will be able to afford rent and other necessities for successful reentry. And set up a payment plan so that former prisoners can pay back their debts, such as fines owed to the courts, once they are back up on their feet.

Such a payment plan for fees and fines would represent a big upgrade over the usual work-release programs. Financial obligations are usually deducted from the paycheck up front, and debt can follow formerly incarcerated people around for years. This erodes their incentive to work, makes crime more tempting, and absorbs money that might otherwise procure stable housing and other basic necessities.

People who have been incarcerated—mostly minority men with low-incomes and little schooling —continue to pay a price long after they have left prison. They often enter prison with close to nothing and return to society with little money to get established after incarceration.

Compounding the problem, they also face significant barriers to finding employment upon release.

Bruce Western is a sociology professor and the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard University, and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Linda Forman Naval is Deputy Director of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care, jail, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, Reentry | No Comments »

School Money for Kids Who Need It Most, a Childhood Trauma Ted Talk, Kids in Gangs, and Pitchess Jail Teacher’s Sex Conviction

February 19th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

MOST CA SCHOOL DISTRICTS FAILING TO USE NEW BUDGET $$ TO RAMP UP SERVICES FOR FOSTER KIDS

Prior to a 2013 funding approach overhaul, California education budget allocation was severely inequitable, often giving more money to affluent school districts while short-changing schools—and kids—that needed the state dollars the most. The new budget system, the Local Control Funding Formula, is a weighted funding approach that allows districts (rather than the state) to decide how a portion of their funding is spent. The new formula aims to level the playing field for high-needs students, including foster kids, who are severely underserved by school districts.

The Local Control Funding Formula allocates more money for high-needs kids, and requires districts to set up goals and action plans for helping these students overcome barriers with regard to attendance, suspensions and expulsions, and interactions with school police.

A year into the Local Control Funding Formula implementation, a new report has found that, overall, California districts are failing to take advantage of the new system to analyze and address the needs of students in foster care.

Foster kids have the worst educational outcomes—including the lowest graduation rates—among high-needs student groups, which are comprised of kids from low-income households, kids with disabilities, and English-learners. In California, kids attend an average of eight different schools while in foster care. Nationwide 67% of foster kids have been suspended at least one time. Just under half of foster kids in the US battle emotional and behavioral problems, and a quarter of former foster kids (now adults) have PTSD, a rate twice that of war veterans.

According to the report, LA Unified was the only school district that had established baseline suspension data to measure the district’s progress in that area. No schools figured out the baseline data for expulsions. Only Temecula established a goal specifically targeting the expulsion of students in the child welfare system. And again, only Temecula set aside money expressly for lowering the rates at which foster kids get suspended and expelled.

Only two districts, including LAUSD, identified the baseline data for foster kids’ school attendance. Only 9% of districts named goals, and just 11% cited spending money on helping foster kids with attendance issues.

The report, authored by Laura Faer and Marjorie Cohen of Public Counsel, which focuses solely on districts’ implementation of the funding changes with regard to students in foster care, examined data from 64 California districts in which 55% of the state’s students in foster care are enrolled (the districts had to have at least 150 kids in the child welfare system).

Among other recommendations, the report calls on districts to get serious and analyze data, create goals, and, you know, earmark that extra money to help disadvantaged kids, as intended. The report lists some worthy things to put the money toward, like restorative justice, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, and trauma-informed systems.

Fix School Discipline has a good roundup of the report’s main points. Here are some clips:

“Foster youth in California are disproportionately subjected to suspensions, expulsions and contacts with the juvenile justice system, all of which compound and exacerbate the trauma most have already experienced,” said Laura Faer, Statewide Education Director for Public Counsel and co-author of the report. “Improving school climate for foster youth means putting a stop to school removals and referrals to police and developing a school environment that supports their social, emotional and mental health. Developing a positive and trauma-informed school environment must be a top priority this year for districts that serve foster youth.”

[SNIP]

…very few districts analyzed the needs of foster youth or created specific strategies for addressing their challenges, which include barriers to enrollment, lack of transportation, disruptive school changes, multiple, disconnected system players, absence of a single and constant adult supporter, and exposure to high levels of trauma, all of which severely impact learning and behavior. However, in response to the new law and the efforts of organizations calling on and working with districts to prioritize school climate improvements, a large number of districts articulated promising overall school climate approaches…


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC OF KIDS AND TRAUMA…

Center for Youth Wellness founder Nadine Burke Harris explains the link between childhood trauma and long-term health issues in a TED talk (that everyone who hasn’t already, should watch).


NEW REPORT FINDS VERY DIFFERENT TEEN GANG INVOLVEMENT NUMBERS THAN LAW ENFORCEMENT ESTIMATES

There are more than one million kids in gangs across the nation, according to an interesting report that will be published in the March issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. That number is based on a sample of 6,700 surveyed kids and teenagers, and is three times higher than the number estimated by the law enforcement-based National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS).

According to the report, the turnover rate for gang membership was 37% within a year period, a rate that contradicts the notion that when kids join gangs, they never leave them.

The report also found that 30% of young gang members were girls.

The study’s lead author, David Pyrooz, is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has more on the report’s findings, as well as why Pyrooz says the study’s gang population estimates are so far away from law enforcement numbers. Here’s a clip:

Law enforcement, the study said, puts more emphasis than the study did on older gang members and those involved in violent acts in determining the total number of gang members.

And while law enforcement relies on several factors, such as participating in violent acts or wearing gang colors, the researchers in the new study determined gang membership solely by youths identifying themselves as gang members.

“We’re picking up on this sort of dark figure of this hidden population of gang members in the U.S. that just aren’t going to be identified in law enforcement databases,” Pyrooz said.

“These are the guys who are more peripheral to the gang. They aren’t necessarily involved in deep-end gang activities, whereas law enforcement is picking up on those guys who are the deep end, those individuals who are committing crimes at high rates. They’re involved in lots of violence. They’re extremely embedded in the gang, hanging out on more of a daily basis, whereas we think we’re picking up on the entire picture as opposed to just that core element of the gang population.”

Pyrooz said most youths who join gangs do so at around ages 12 or 13, and the peak age for gang membership is 14.


LA COUNTY JAIL TEACHER CONVICTED OF SEX WITH INMATE STUDENT

A former LA County Pitchess jail teacher, 33-year-old Lisa Nichole Leroy, was sentenced to three years of probation and 40 hours of community service after pleading no contest to having sex with an inmate in a jail classroom.

LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office has further information on the case.

Posted in ACEs, DCFS, District Attorney, Foster Care, juvenile justice, LA County Jail, LASD, PTSD, Trauma | No Comments »

Are LA’s Foster Care & Juvie Justice Kids Being Over Drugged?….When Experts Recant in Criminal Cases….The Flawed Science of Bite Mark Evidence…..TAL’s Series: “Cops See Things Differently”

February 17th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



As you know, we’ve been following San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sá’s important series on over drugging in California foster care system.

Then, late on Tuesday, the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf reported that the kids overseen by LA County’s juvenile probation system plus LA County’s foster care children are being drugged in greater numbers than was originally thought.

Here’s are some clips from Therolf’s story:

Los Angeles County officials are allowing the use of powerful psychiatric drugs on far more children in the juvenile delinquency and foster care systems than they had previously acknowledged, according to data obtained by The Times through a Public Records Act request.

The newly unearthed figures show that Los Angeles County’s 2013 accounting failed to report almost one in three cases of children on the drugs while in foster care or the custody of the delinquency system.

The data show that along with the 2,300 previously acknowledged cases, an additional 540 foster children and 516 children in the delinquency system were given the drugs. There are 18,000 foster children and 1,000 youth in the juvenile delinquency* system altogether.

If we are reading this right, that means that more than half of LA County’s kids in the juvenile justice system are being given psychotropic medications. Is that possible?

State law requires a judge’s approval before the medication can be administered to children under the custody of the courts, but a preliminary review showed no such approval in the newly discovered cases.

Child advocates and state lawmakers have long argued that such medications are routinely overprescribed, often because caretakers are eager to make children more docile and easy to manage — even when there’s no medical need.

We’ll get back to you as we know more on this disturbing issue.


NEW CALIFORNIA LAW HELPS IN CASES WHEN EXPERTS REVERSE TESTIMONY

A new California law, which took affect in January, makes it easier to get a case overturned when experts recant. But will it help the man whose case inspired the law?

Sudhin Thanawala of the AP has the story.

Here’s a clip:

This much is not in dispute. William Richards’ wife, Pamela, was strangled and her skull smashed in the summer of 1993. A California jury convicted Richards of the slaying after hearing now-recanted bite-mark testimony.

But California judges have disagreed about whether that change in testimony was grounds for tossing Richards’ conviction. Now, almost two decades after Richards was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, his attorneys are hopeful a new state law inspired by his case will set him free.

The law, which took effect in January, makes it easier for a defendant to get a conviction overturned when experts recant their testimony. It prompted attorneys for the 65-year-old Richards, who has always maintained his innocence, to again ask the California Supreme Court to throw out a jury’s guilty verdict.

Legal experts say the law will impact a wide variety of cases where experts later have second thoughts about their testimony. And it gives attorneys fighting to exonerate their clients an important new tool.

“More and more, experts are reconsidering their opinion not because they have pangs of guilt, but because in fact the science changes,” said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School. “You want a legal system that recognizes that reality.”

A San Bernardino County jury convicted Richards in 1997 of first-degree murder following expert testimony that a mark on his wife’s hand was consistent with a unique feature of Richards’ teeth. That expert, a forensic dentist, later recanted, saying he was no longer sure the injury was even a bite mark.


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF THE SCIENCE OF BITE MARK MATCHING….

According to the Innocence Project, 24 people have been exonerated after they were either convicted or arrested because of the analysis of a bite mark analyst.

Director of special litigation for the Innocence Project, Chris Fabricant, who specializes in bite mark evidence, estimates that there are still hundreds of people in prison today due to bite mark testimony, including at least 15 awaiting execution, writes the Washington Post’s Radley Balko.

Balko’s story on the flawed “science” of bite-mark matching, and those who still go to great lengths to defend it, is both important and alarming.

Here’s how it opens:

Before he left the courtroom, Gerard Richardson made his mother a promise. “I told her that one day she’d see me walk out of that building a free man,” he says.

Her response nearly broke him. “She said, ‘Gerard, I’ll be dead by then.’”

Richardson, then 30, had just been convicted for the murder of 19-year-old Monica Reyes, whose half-naked body was found in a roadside ditch in Bernards Township, N.J. The year was 1995, and Richardson had just been sentenced to 30 years in prison.

There were only two pieces of evidence implicating him. One was a statement from Reyes’s boyfriend, who claimed to have heard Richardson threaten to kill her. But that statement was made only after police had shown the boyfriend the second piece of evidence: a finding from a forensic odontologist that a bite mark found on Reyes’s body was a match to Richardson’s teeth. Dr. Ira Titunik, the bite mark expert for the prosecution, would later tell jurors there was “no question in my mind” that Richardson had bitten Reyes.

“I thought it was crazy,” Richardson says. “There was no way it was possible. The FBI looked at hairs, fibers, blood, everything the police found at the crime scene. None of it came from me. Just this bite mark.”

Two decades later, DNA technology was good enough to test the tiny amount of saliva in the bite found on Monica Reyes body, resulting in the overturning of Richardson’s conviction.

Here’s Part 2 of Balko’s series on bite mark evidence telling how the bite mark matchers went on the attack when subjected to scientific scrutiny as American courts across the country welcomed bite mark evidence


THIS AMERICAN LIFE TAKES ON THE DIVIDE IN AMERICA ABOUT POLICING AND RACE

After the conflicts caused by events in Ferguson, along with the death of Eric Garner in New York, and other controversial shootings by police, Ira Glass and the producers of This American Life noted that there seemed to be a huge divide in the nation about how people view the issue of race and policing.

The TAL producers originally intended to a single show on the issue of these intense differences in views. But they ran across so many relevant stories, that they devoted two shows to the complex tales that they found.

In the first episode This American Life looks at one police department—in Milwaukee-–which had a long history of tension with black residents, and a chief of police committed to changing things. But although some things change, others do not. And nothing is simple. When an unarmed black man is killed by police in controversial circumstances, the battle lines form, and the two groups opposing groups agree on only one thing: they want the chief out.

By the show’s end, we glimpse change in Milwaukee, yet it comes not in steps, but in inches.

A week later, in the second hour of stories about policing and race, This American Life reporters tell about one city where relations between police and black residents went terribly, and another city where they seem to be improving remarkably.

We highly recommend both programs. They are designed to start conversations.

Posted in children and adolescents, FBI, Foster Care, How Appealing, Innocence, juvenile justice, law enforcement, Probation, race, racial justice | No Comments »

« Previous Entries