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Out-of-State Treatment Centers

Michael, photographed at 19, was among the California teens sent to out-of-state facilities run by Sequel Youth & Family Services. Photo: Sylvia Jarrus

If passed, AB 808’s moratorium would go into effect July 1

Legislation pending in the California Legislature would permanently bar child welfare and juvenile justice authorities from sending troubled youth to out-of-state residential facilities— treatment centers where young people have been abused by staff far from their homes and those responsible for their care and custody.

Assembly Bill 808,authored by the Santa Cruz Democrat Mark Stone, was introduced in response to an Imprint and San Francisco Chronicle investigation which exposed rampant abuse at many of the for-profit facilities where California youth in foster care and on probation have been sent for treatment.If enacted, the moratorium would take effect as soon as next month. 

“We have a duty to ensure that every youth in our care has access to comprehensive treatment without resorting to out-of-state placements,” Assembly member Stone told The Imprint through a spokesperson. “AB 808 reflects that commitment by eliminating the use of out-of-state placements and setting up a continuum of care that can support our most vulnerable youth, in-state, and closer to the communities they call home.”

Upon introduction in February, Stone’s legislation did not explicitly prohibit sending these troubled youth out of state, focusing instead on creating additional beds for young people with acute emotional and psychological needs.

But under pressure from youth advocates, amendments introduced this week strengthened the intent of the bill. According to newly revised language, AB 808 would declare “a moratorium on all new placements in, and certifications of, out-of-state facilities accepting California children placed by county social services agencies or probation departments effective July 1, 2021.”

If signed into law, the bill would be accompanied by a significant investment in keeping youth with complex needs and behavioral health conditions closer to home.

In order to take effect this year, the current version must pass both houses and be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

Lawyers with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center who pushed for the change said it is still too early to know for sure whether the moratorium will become law, and it remains “a heavy lift.”

The center’s Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez said Friday that her attorneys have been working with Stone’s office and other state lawmakers for months to “finally, permanently end the decades-long, dangerous practice of sending California’s most vulnerable children in foster care, disproportionately children of color, to out of state facilities.” Rodriguez said those facilities “have extensive histories of abusing, neglecting and even killing children in foster care.” 

If signed into law, the bill would be accompanied by a significant investment in keeping youth with complex needs and behavioral health conditions closer to home. Rodriguez said lawmakers including Sen. Nancy Skinner (D) have allocated an additional $100 million, money that would be added to $39.2 million in the governor’s proposed May budget.

The December investigative exposé “Far from Home, Far from Safe” relied on incident reports and other public documents from five states to reveal abusive conditions at facilities run by the for-profit company Sequel Youth & Family Services. Documents and interviews revealed that the California Department of Social Services knew for years that children in Sequel-run residential treatment programs had been punched, choked and slapped by staff members, sometimes leaving them with broken bones and concussions. 

The violence made national headlines last April when employees at Sequel’s Lakeside Academy piled on top of 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks after he threw bread in the cafeteria, suffocating him. Cornelius cried out, “I can’t breathe,” according to surveillance footage and a civil lawsuit, before he died of cardiac arrest two days later.

Youth like Colby Jarrell from San Bernardino County said in interviews that staff members caught him trying to run away from Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and repeatedly slammed him to the ground, leaving him with back pain so severe he could barely walk for months. 

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A teenage girl from Marin County told reporters she was sent to a Sequel facility in Prescott Valley, Arizona, where a counselor gave one of her friends a black eye, and she watched another girl pass out while a staff member held her on the ground. Kayla said the violence often happened in response to minor misbehavior like children refusing to get out of bed. 

California officials found that staff at Mingus Mountain, where Kayla was sent, used “derogatory and abusive language” and “excessive force” when restraining children in their care. But children were still sent there.

“I was scared and missing my mom a lot,” said Kayla, whose last name is being withheld to protect her confidential juvenile record. 

Presented with reporters’ findings,the California Department of Social Servicesordered 133 California children brought back to their home communities. 

The state Legislature then allocated $8 million to help counties find new placements for the returning youth, setting themup in foster homes, local residential treatment centers and independent living programs. An additional $39.2 million has been included in the proposed 2021-22 state budget to fund continued support for these high-needs foster youth.

Meanwhile, county officials, lawmakers and advocates have been working to identify gaps in California’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems that led to the reliance on out-of-state facilities, even those with years of licensing violations and repeated reports of serious harm to children.

Assemblymember Mark Stone authored AB 808.

Assemblymember Mark Stone authored AB 808.

“While all youth who were formerly placed out-of-state have been returned to California, the system gaps that led to out-of-state placements still exist and the services we currently have in place are not enough to serve our highest needs youth,” Stone said. The current version of his legislation allows young people in need of treatment to remain in California, “while also providing counties with the resources they need to build upon our current system of services.” 

AB 808 would create more programs for young people who can be the most challenging for local officials to find placements for: those with severe mental illness, persistent runaways, and youth who have set fires or committed violent acts. 

Sponsored by trade associations and lobbyists representing child welfare and juvenile probation leaders, the bill is described in a recent legislative analysis as a “multipronged effort at addressing the placement and service needs of foster youth with complex behavioral and mental health needs.” With a $100 million budget, the bill would create a “Children’s Crisis Continuum,” with a range of services — from 24-hour “crisis stabilization” and “crisis residential” programs, to beds in specialized foster homes supported by mental health services. 

Under AB 808’s current language, both the crisis stabilization units and crisis residential units would be located in locked facilities, something opposed by some youth advocates. California law protects foster youth from being locked up unless they have been convicted of a crime or admitted to an inpatient psychiatric hospital. 

The bill would also create a specialized family home model of care, in which foster parents would receive extra training and professional assistance to serve young people who would otherwise be institutionalized. Regional centers taking in foster youth with developmental and intellectual disabilities would also be able to claim federal reimbursement under the new bill. 

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AB 808 passed unanimously through the state Assembly and has received no formal opposition. It is now being heard by Senate committees. Funding for the bill would be finalized in the pending state budget, which the governor must sign by July 1, though he has until October to sign or veto bills.

“We hope to see the Legislature and Governor act through their budget and policy process to be a responsible parent,” Rodriguez said, “and end once and for all, this practice that has stolen childhoods and resulted in countless tragic outcomes for children in foster care.” 

Sara Tiano
The Imprint