Last month an ongoing San Francisco Chronicle investigation found that a troubled foster care shelter in San Joaquin County is continuing to criminalize—and traumatize—kids in its care, months after county leaders promised reforms were on the way for the shelter.
Now, state officials have intervened. According to the state, San Joaquin’s entire foster care system is full of failures—beyond the emergency shelter—including inadequate monitoring of psychotropic drugs prescribed to foster kids. In a rare move, the state has threatened to perform an administrative takeover of the San Joaquin foster care system.
Back in May, the SF Chron’s Karen de Sá, Joaquin Palomino and Cynthia Dizikes shined an investigative spotlight on California’s 10 emergency shelters for abused and neglected children, where kids are warehoused, sometimes abused further, and often criminalized.
The investigation, “Fostering Failure” revealed that shelter workers call the police excessively when kids act out, run away, and otherwise act like traumatized children.
Counties’ child welfare departments place children in short-term emergency shelters after they are taken from their families, or between placements.
(In a June op-ed for WitnessLA Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, argued that the problem with these emergency shelters, is that they exist at all.)
Between 2015 and 2016, the staff at the 10 shelters called local law enforcement agencies 14,000 times regarding the kids in their care. During those same years, children entered various county juvenile halls nearly 200 times.
Despite the fact that shelter staff members undergo specialized training on how to care for traumatized children, foster kids in these shelters are commonly arrested for acts like kicking, shoving, or biting their caregivers.
Of the 10 facilities, Mary Graham Children’s Shelter in San Joaquin County was responsible for the most arrests. Mary Graham staff phoned the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department 5,049 times between 2015 and 2016 to deal with kids in their care. The facility made more than one-third of all law enforcement service calls and was responsible for half of all arrests, citations, and juvenile hall bookings between 2015 and 2016.
At Mary Graham, kids were arrested or cited 259 times during those years. These arrests and citations resulted in 199 bookings into juvenile hall.
Troubles Persist at Mary Graham and Point to Systemic Breakdowns
Late last month, the SF Chron reporters found that Mary Graham staffers were still failing to adequately supervise kids, and continued to rely on local law enforcement officers to serve as disciplinarians.
While arrests at Mary Graham dropped significantly in 2017, kids have been sent to juvenile hall 11 times so far this year. In one case, a 14-year-old girl was arrested for assault after she tossed a cup of water on a staff member. In another case, a boy spent five days locked up before his charges were dropped and he was returned to Mary Graham.
In June, the state issued two citations to Mary Graham after a foster youth attempted to hang himself two times in a single week at the shelter.
According to the Chron, these inadequacies have persisted long after county officials said they would implement new policies to prevent the criminalization of foster kids housed in the shelter, and that Mary Graham staff would receive more training.
But Mary Graham is far from the only problem with San Joaquin’s foster care system.
The California Department of Social Services has revealed that county social workers do not meet with their young clients often enough and fail to help kids stay connected with their family members and community. Moreover, social workers do not look for possible relative caregivers when kids are removed from their homes.
The state officials also found inadequate documentation regarding whether the county meets the mental health and educational needs of kids in foster care.
The department also fails to adequately monitor psychotropic medications prescribed to foster youth, according to the state’s investigation. (Back in 2014, in a different investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, Karen de Sá revealed that California doctors were excessively prescribing foster kids risky cocktails of psychotropic medications.)
The state Department of Social Services has given San Joaquin a month to respond with proposed child welfare reforms.
Photo: Mary Graham Children’s Shelter