Foster children at risk in Sacramento intake center

July 11, 2017

SACRAMENTO — Only a few of California’s 58 counties still operate shelters for abused and neglected children, orphanage-style settings widely considered outmoded and undesirable for kids who need the care of a family home. But in Sacramento, many children aren’t even let into its last-resort foster care shelter. Instead, they sleep on the floor in a waiting room nearby.

For the past year and a half, in violation of state health and safety laws, hundreds of children awaiting foster care placement in Sacramento County have had to sleep in the lobby of its central intake office, or in an adjacent pair of “Comfort Rooms,” often on cots, fold-up mats and air mattresses.

“I don’t understand why they call it a Comfort Room because it’s not comfortable,” said 19-year-old Lae’Liana Brooks. In her most recent stint at the intake unit, Brooks slept for two weeks on the lobby floor with her head under a bank of plastic chairs. “We were basically treated like we were homeless. It made me feel like I wasn’t worth nothing. Like we were forgotten about.”

State-licensed facilities housing foster children are monitored and receive regular health and safety inspections — standards that apply even to drop-in child care centers at ski resorts and shopping malls. But in Sacramento, some of the most deeply scarred children end up staying in the unlicensed and ill-suited Centralized Placement Support Unit for weeks or even months at a time, using the foster care intake center for a meal, a shower, and a place to stay overnight before hitting the streets again.

County officials lament that the placement center, meant for a brief, hours-long stopover, has instead become a crash pad. But they say there has either been no room for the youths at the nearby shelter, or their needs have been too great to safely care for them among other vulnerable children.

Yet with little to engage them at the makeshift Auburn Boulevard site, foster youth are at risk of extended homelessness and commercial sexual exploitation in the surrounding neighborhood, an area notorious for human trafficking.

Girls on Auburn Boulevard “are being recruited, groomed and exploited,” said Beth Hassett, director of a nonprofit agency whose Antitrafficking Response Team has been called on to counsel 70 youths at the placement center during the past year. “There are traffickers who are well aware of the location and can be spotted waiting around for girls to come and go.”

The glaring problems in Sacramento surfaced during a Chronicle investigation of California county children’s shelters. Over the previous two years, The Chronicle reported in May, foster youth in children’s shelters have been subjected to hundreds of questionable arrests and detentions for minor misbehavior.

On the shelter campus owned and managed by the nonprofit Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento, 44 foster youths were booked at the juvenile hall in 2015 and 2016.

Those bookings included one African American boy, just 8 years old, who was arrested at 3555 Auburn Blvd. in January on suspicion of felony assault and misdemeanor vandalism. Shelter managers said the arrest occurred on the unlicensed portion of the campus that Sacramento County rents for its central placement unit.

Child welfare officials concede that children being housed at the intake unit — located just paces from the shelter — is a less-than-ideal situation. Michelle Callejas, deputy director of the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services, said she hopes to shut the unit down by the end of the year.

To that end, the county is recruiting new foster parents equipped to handle challenging older teens, creating more residential treatment programs and reworking its contract with the Children’s Receiving Home so that the shelter will admit children with more severe needs.

Callejas said sometimes social workers do find homes for these youths, many of whom have been maltreated by their parents, scarred by years in and out of foster and group homes, and fearing yet another rejection, they simply won’t go.

“Instead they prefer to stay at the intake lobby,” she said. “And I would rather have them there than out on the street, where they will continue to be victimized. I do think it’s a better alternative.”

State licensing officials say the situation is illegal. In February 2016, the California Department of Social Services issued Sacramento County a citation for operating a residential facility at the intake office without a license. The state ordered the county to “cease residential operations” at the site and to move children residing there to “appropriate” places within two weeks.

Seventeen months later, the situation is little changed. State officials have visited the site 15 times and continue to negotiate with the county about how to ensure that foster children are only housed in licensed settings.

Some incremental improvements have been made, including youth crisis counseling, security staff, and new janitorial services to address social workers’ concerns expressed in a recent report that areas of the center “are falling apart.”

But danger remains ever-present at the facility, located amid cheap motels in a high-crime neighborhood near Interstate 80. The Auburn Boulevard strip mall facing the center includes a smoke shop, two massage parlors, a liquor store and a gun dealer. On a recent visit, a reporter was approached within moments by a forlorn, bedraggled teen from the foster care shelter campus across the street, who desperately needed a cell phone to call her boyfriend.

“It’s a very unfortunate location for that particular facility, a facility that serves sexually exploited children,” said Hassett, executive director of Weave, an agency serving survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and sex trafficking. “It’s too close to all of the things that have been contributing to their exploitation, including some specific motels that allow the activity to happen on their premises, predators who are looking for victims, and businesses that unwittingly add to the problem by casting a blind eye or feeding the girls.”

There were more than 2,500 children in foster care in Sacramento County in April, the most recent state figures show, youngsters who at some point were removed from abusive homes and brought to the intake center by social workers or police. Local data show that between January and May, 258 children stayed more than 24 hours in the unit. The longest stay reported during that period was 30 days.

While a placement is sought with relatives, foster parents, group homes or in the adjacent 49-bed shelter, the children wait in one of two Comfort Rooms. There they can watch television, play video games, do arts and crafts and read copies of Teen magazine, Highlights, and Sports Illustrated Kids. One of the Comfort Rooms has two single beds, a toddler-size bed, cribs and a roll-out sleeper as well as bathrooms with showers.

But on a tour of the facility in March, a teenager sat hunched in a plastic chair in the intake lobby, clutching a fast-food bag with a blanket over his head, while county staff chatted behind the glass-encased booth facing him.

Youths who refuse to sign an agreement stating that they will not engage in assaultive behavior or destroy property may be refused access to the Comfort Rooms. As a result, they can end up sprawled on the lobby floor at night.

Brooks remembers ending up there as a young teen numerous times, in between dozens of foster care placements and times when she was on the run.

She said she understood that there were beds available in the adjoining shelter, a collection of cottages serving foster children through age 18. “But they didn’t want to take me,” she recalled, even when she felt she had outgrown her misbehavior as a younger teen.

That left her at one point spending as long as two weeks on the lobby floor on a blue fold-out mat, with her personal belongings strewn about an area resembling a doctor’s office waiting room.

“We had to beg them, can we please go take a shower? Or we’d come and go because there was nothing to do,” she said. “We’d just sit there.”

Directors of the nonprofit Children’s Law Center, which provides attorneys for foster children in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Placer counties, said they have seen a rise in the number of children spending time at the intake unit.

“At least one time, law enforcement agents came through, stepping over kids sleeping on mats on the floor just to get through to the interior part of the office,” said Brenda Dabney, director of the Children’s Law Center of Sacramento. Given the cramped space and lack of activities, she added, “it creates this never-ending cycle — you need to stay in this little room while we find a placement, and when you leave, we stop looking. And of course they do leave,” she said, making it difficult to track their whereabouts or well-being.

In the county’s annual state-mandated Child and Family Services Review, Sacramento social workers reported unclean conditions in the intake center, as well as a lack of clothing for children. They recommended that the center be moved, due to its “bad location for Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth” and reported “there are safety issues, the comfort room is too small, and there is not enough staff.”

David Ballard, CEO of the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento, said the shelter he runs is at times too full to receive any more children from the intake center, particularly large sibling groups. Other times, he said, his facility has been unable to safely admit youth who are deemed dangerously aggressive, in need of psychiatric hospitalization, heavily abusing drugs or actively recruiting other youth for sexual exploitation.

Ballard described the challenge as an ongoing “ethical concern” and said solutions are evolving, including consideration of a “no-reject, no-eject” policy, and increasing his shelter’s ability to provide one-on-one staffing.

“It’s an active issue for all of us, expediting these kids to get them into a bed rather than having them stuck” at the intake center, Ballard said. “We are working with the county to find a way to bring them into the shelter and trying to get this thing undone. We have to take these kids, it’s clear.”

Karen de Sá is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kdesa@sfchronicle.com

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