California Still Ships Troubled Kids Out of State

Friday, January 01, 2016

California has responded to cries, over the years, that troubled juveniles are not treated well in its social institutions by closing dangerous correctional facilities, eliminating dicey group homes and tightening up standards in general.

Those reforms also made it harder in a state to find a place for kids who need acute care, so California ships them out of state. You could look it up . . . if the state kept comprehensive records. It does not.

But ProPublica ran some numbers and estimated that at least 900 youthful miscreants were stashed outside California in 2015, mostly in Utah. Local school districts provided the most kids, 600. County probation departments accounted for around 235 and child welfare agencies supplied another 52.

“What’s happening in California is dishonest,” Ken Berrick, the founder of Seneca Family of Agencies in Oakland, told ProPublica. “We’re saying we don’t want locked facilities here and we don’t want group homes, so instead we’re sending kids to Utah where we can’t monitor them. What’s that about? It’s just wrong.”

The state does do some monitoring. There is the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC), a 1975 interstate agreement that ensures “children who are placed across state lines for foster care or adoption receive adequate protection and support services.”  

But ProPublica saw “signs that California has a limited ability to guarantee the health and welfare of the children it sends beyond its borders.” Out-of-state inspections by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) are “occasional,” but a lot can be accomplished in a short time, since many of the kids are in Utah.

Homes for troubled youths has been a niche industry in the Mormon-dominated state since the 1970s, with more than 100 taking kids from around the country. California contracts with around 20.  

The industry got some bad publicity for a decade when one of the larger networks of for-profit schools, run by Robert Lichfield, crumbled under a barrage of complaints. A lawsuit was filed that referenced testimony from nearly 350 children detailing cruel and unusual treatment. Utah began licensing the facilities in 2005.

Lichfield, a major contributor to Republican Mitt Romney, left the presidential campaign in September 2007 after his involvement with the schools became an issue.

California is acquainted with the problem of sending children to states with lower standards of treatment. In 1998, the brutal death of 16-year-old Sacramento native Nicholaus Contreraz in an Arizona “tough love” boot camp focused attention on the other 1,000 California youths being punished out-of-state for a juvenile offense.

The state tightened up the requirements for institutions taking the kids but continues to use outside resources for financial reasons and convenience. Many of the kids need special attention and California isn’t prepared to deliver that.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Out of Options, California Ships Hundreds of Troubled Children Out of State (by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica)

Abuse Allegations Continue at Utah Residential Youth Treatment Facilities (by Justin Higginbottom, Al Jazeera)

A Puzzling Death at Boys Ranch (by Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times)

California's Child Welfare Continuum of Care Reform (California Department of Social Services) (pdf)

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