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Josiah, 19, at Phoenix Green Park in Sacramento, California, on Thursday, December 17, 2020. Josiah spent one year at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo: The San Francisco Chronicle

Josiah, 19, at Phoenix Green Park in Sacramento, California, on Thursday, December 17, 2020. Josiah spent one year at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo: The San Francisco Chronicle

Legislation has been introduced to permanently end the decades-long practice

Answering for its yearslong failure to protect hundreds of young people housed at dangerous out-of-state residential treatment centers, the California Legislature is now tackling how to better serve its most troubled youth on probation and in foster care — closer to their homes, families and communities.

The bill follows an investigation by The Imprint and the San Francisco Chronicle published in December revealing that at facilities run by the for-profit Sequel Youth and Family Services, staff members punched, kicked, choked and sexually assaulted youth in their care. Last May, a 16-year-old placed at Sequel’s Michigan campus died after seven staff members piled on top of him for throwing a sandwich in the cafeteria.

Legislation introduced by state Assembly member Mark Stone (D) aims to end the state’s long-standing practice of sending young people with histories of abuse, neglect and clashes with the law to programs in far-flung parts of the country.

For years, reporters found, California officials knew of allegations at Sequel-run programs, but failed to act. After reviewing the investigation’s findings late last year,the state social services agency swiftly decertified not just Sequel-run facilities, but all out-of-state treatment centers, and ordered counties to quickly bring more than 130 children back to California.

At a virtual round table in the state capital Friday, child welfare professionals and youth advocates updated legislative staff on the teens’ hasty return, how they’ve fared since coming back and what happens next. 

Sweeping Investigation

“What we need to ask,” Youth Law Center attorney Erin Palacios told the assembled, “is why did we ever send them out there in the first place — and how do we make sure we never do it again?” 

Stone’s Assembly Bill 808 is in the early stages, but so far describes its intent as “legislation that ensures every foster youth in California has access to a comprehensive continuum of care that prevents the need for out-of-state placements.”

In an interview, Stone said his bill will create additional levels of care for high-needs youth, including short-term “crisis stabilization units” connected to psychiatric health facilities — a need called out by several of the panelists who spoke Friday.

The majority of the California youth who have recently returned to the state are now living with relatives or in foster homes, according to a new set of anonymous, publicly available data posted by the state Department of Social Services. Fewer than a third have remained in residential treatment centers. 

For decades, child welfare and probation agencies have sent foster youth and teens on probation with challenging behaviors or mental health issues to other states for care, claiming a lack of in-state options that met their complex needs. 

Legislation introduced by state Assembly member Mark Stone (D) aims to end the state’s long-standing practice of sending young people with histories of abuse, neglect and clashes with the law to programs in far-flung parts of the country.

Following the investigative exposé, state leaders are now focusing on how to better serve these young people without sending them thousands of miles from home, and how to identify the systemic gaps that resulted in them being sent away in the first place.

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Speaking Friday before the state Assembly’s Select Committee on Foster Care, Sara Rogers, branch chief with the Department of Social Services, touted the agency’s success in bringing home all but one California teen and quickly resettling them in foster homes or local treatment centers. 

“We do see it as a tremendous success in terms of being able to identify alternative placements,” Rogers said.

But representatives of county child welfare directors, group care facilities and probation chiefs said the abrupt removal of the children from out-of-state facilities has revealed the lack of local options, and in some cases further upended the fragile lives of young people with histories that can be complicated to address. 

Cathy Senderling-McDonald, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, said in the case of some youth who had been sent out of state for protection from commercial sexual exploitation, the abrupt return home had left them feeling vulnerable all over again. Several had asked to stay in their out-of-state placement, she said, but they weren’t allowed, and they are now struggling back in California. 

“It was a concern for us that the youth and family voice and choice just unfortunately were largely set aside,” Senderling-McDonaldsaid. 

Rosie McCool, deputy director for the Chief Probation Officers of California, described a lack of foster parents and in-state treatment centers willing to take in youth who might pose a public safety risk or who have violent histories and aggressive behaviors. 

And Chris Stoner-Mertz, head of a trade association representing many of California’s group care facilities, said laws prohibiting locked facilities make it challenging to serve youth who act out in dangerous ways or have a history of running away. 

Palacios and other attorneys at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center have long pushed the state to keep children closer to home for treatment, and noted Friday that although some do well, residential programs like those run by Sequel have failed to help them heal, often causing greater harm to vulnerable lives. 

In recent months, amid heightened public scrutiny of abuse at its programs, Sequel has announced it will close two facilities long relied upon by California — Normative Services in Wyoming and Clarinda Academy in Iowa. The $450 million Alabama-based company cited concerns of reduced census and financial viability, after California and other states announced they would no longer send their children to the company’s programs. 

child care

Palacios pointed to other group care providers nationwide that journalists and legal advocates have found are abusing children in their care — including the once prestigious Glen Mills Schools and the behavioral health giant Deveraux.

“There’s a myth of safe placement in these facilities,” Palacios said. “These are not safe places, they were never safe places.”

Sara Tiano
The Imprint