California has banned the practice of sending foster youth and teens charged with crimes to faraway residential treatment programs, following an investigation by The Imprint and The San Francisco Chronicle into reports of violent abuse at some of these out-of-state campuses.
The policy change, signed into law last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), commits $100 million over five years to create new programs closer to home for these vulnerable children and teenagers.
It “ensures that every youth in our care has the in-state services they need to thrive in the communities they call home,” said Democratic state Assembly member Mark Stone, who authored the legislation that was later adopted as part of a larger budget bill. “I am proud that Governor Newsom has signed this.”
The December investigation found that California officials had sent thousands of children to out-of-state treatment programs run by a private company, Sequel Youth & Family Services. California law prohibits judges from sending children to for-profit residential facilities; Sequel skirted the law by managing the campuses while preserving their ownership under local nonprofits.
At these institutions in Michigan, Iowa, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah, students reported physical abuse and sexual assault at the hands of employees, licensing records show. The violence turned deadly in April 2020, when seven staff members at the Sequel-run Lakeside Academy in Michigan killed a 16-year-old boy by piling on top of him as he cried out, “I can’t breathe.”
The California Department of Social Services, which certifies residential treatment programs used by probation and child welfare agencies, had long known about the problems at campuses operated by Sequel, which is based in Alabama. Since 2017, California and officials in five other states had investigated hundreds of alleged violations or deficiencies at Sequel-run facilities used by California, including complaints that staff members had hit, kicked and assaulted residents, or had placed them in dangerous physical restraints.
In response to The Imprint and Chronicle investigation, the social services department decertified all out-of-state residential treatment programs in December, temporarily ending the practice of shipping foster children to distant facilities. With the signing of the budget bill on Thursday, Newsom effectively made the ban permanent starting July 1, 2022.
The bill will fund a pilot program for counties, which are charged with developing local treatment alternatives for foster youth with severe mental and behavioral health needs –– a group that child welfare and probation officials have historically said they don’t have the resources to serve in-state.
As part of the pilot, counties can use the money to create specialized foster family homes, which can include live-in professional staff for children who need around-the-clock supervision.
The funds can also be used to develop 24-hour “crisis stabilization units” for young people experiencing psychiatric emergencies, as well as residential programs for children who require long-term care. The stabilization units will serve no more than eight children at a time, while the residential treatment programs will each be capped at four.
Both options would confine youth to locked facilities, a situation criticized by advocates; many of the children have not been charged with crimes, and could be treated in less restrictive settings, they say.
Attorneys with the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, which has long asked California authorities to stop sending children out of state, said they feared that these locked units could become “dumping grounds” for teens with severe challenges.
“If you’re going to put a young person in a locked setting, such a restriction has to come because you think they’re a danger to themselves or to somebody else,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, the law firm’s executive director. “This is all about adult needs and adult convenience. Children deserve more than that.”
Still, the legal group and other advocates applauded the broader move away from out-of-state treatment programs and toward local solutions, describing the new policy as a necessary step in reforming California’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Banning the practice “will force the system to look at the problem in a different way than we have in the past,” said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit that pushes for alternatives to youth incarceration. “We need to get out of the frame of mind where we send the problem away for a year or two and think somehow it will magically go away.”
Officials with child welfare agencies also said they welcomed the influx of money to develop local programs for California’s youth who have proved hardest to serve. But they cautioned lawmakers against viewing the funding as a one-time budget commitment.
“Sustaining this investment will be crucial,” said Cathy Senderling-McDonald, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, “since the complex needs of youth are not one-time in nature.”