Complexities of Sheltering Sexually Exploited Youth Result in Closure of San Mateo Group Home

In foster care most of her life, 17-year-old Amber* finally found a little stability at R.I.S.E. House. After cycling through 35 foster and group homes, she developed relationships at R.I.S.E. and was poised to graduate from high school.

One day last summer, she left the house without permission. Because Amber is in foster care, this is considered “going AWOL,” and sets in motion certain protocols. Since she is also currently being commercially sexually exploited, those protocols are complicated. What’s not complicated is Amber’s need for a safe place to live.

Executive Director Annie Corbett opened R.I.S.E. (Residential Intervention for the Sexually Exploited) in Redwood City, Calif., in 2014 for teens like Amber who get caught in the grip of a trafficker, or pimp, often as a way to survive. The launch of R.I.S.E. followed a watershed moment in the state, with a new law bringing minors who are trafficked under the protection of child welfare, no longer subject to arrest, and state funding offered to counties to develop interagency protocols and collaborations for serving these children.

Corbett Group Homes and RISE House founder Annie Corbett.

Founder Annie Corbett at R.I.S.E. when it opened in 2014.

San Mateo County, where R.I.S.E. was located, opted in to the state funding. San Mateo County is considered part of the San Francisco Bay Area, identified by the FBI as one of the nation’s high intensity areas for commercial sexual exploitation of children. R.I.S.E. was just one of a handful of programs serving this population in the state of California.

Just two years after the program opened, its six beds – among only a few dozen in the state specifically for exploited minors – are now empty, the program’s license suspended last month by the California Department of Social Services. Since then, Corbett has surrendered her license to the group home in Redwood City, admitting no wrongdoing, and agreeing never to open another group home in Redwood City.

The story of R.I.S.E. illustrates the complexities faced by the entities engaged in serving and protecting children like Amber, including providers like Corbett, the state child welfare department, and local law enforcement.

According to a California Child Welfare Council report, stable housing and specialized placement options for exploited youth are “critical to providing an effective continuum of care.”
The report notes that placement options that increase stability include those with “’No reject, no eject’ policies to ensure that when youth run away or relapse they have a safe place to which to return.”

A safe place is exactly what Corbett intended to create at R.I.S.E. She and her staff were attempting, she said, “to engage and work with a population that everyone else gets rid of.”

Under California’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) Act, which became effective on January 1, the state is phasing out group homes in favor of family-based foster care. Group homes like Corbett’s are required to apply to become Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs) which will provide individualized treatment services and be used as a last resort until a foster youth can be reunified with their family or placed in a resource family (as foster families in California will now be called). Corbett says she is in favor of CCR, and has been preparing all of the Corbett Group Homes for the transition.

Concerned by the number of exploited minors who came through her other high-level therapeutic residential programs, and frustrated by her programs’ inability to help these youth due in part to strict regulations regarding such behavior as AWOL’ing, Annie Corbett implemented a different type of program when she opened R.I.S.E.

R.I.S.E. aimed to provide its residents the understanding and time needed for what many survivors and other advocates say is a long process of leaving and healing from a life of exploitation.

One thing Corbett planned for: Amber’s AWOLs. Having learned, she said, that trafficked minors will run away from their foster care placements frequently, often due to a “trauma bond” with their exploiters, she implemented a survivor-led harm-reduction model that would allow youth to come back to a safe space at R.I.S.E. without fear of being “terminated” from the program.

Policy consultant and advocate T Ortiz believes programs with open-door polices are essential for exploited youth. Ortiz, who has spoken about her own experience of exploitation while in foster care in forums around the country, including before congress, says imposing unrealistic rules “just sends them right back to the streets, and often the one person that will take them back is their exploiter. The exploiter will continually have open arms when they run away or get picked up by the police but we’re going to shut our doors on these kids?”

According to Corbett, Community Care Licensing (CCL), the division of the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) that oversees group homes, initially supported the harm-reduction program but last summer began requiring Corbett give a seven-day termination notice to youth who AWOL’d five times. She attributes this change to what she characterizes as pressure on CCL by the Redwood City Police Department.

State regulations require that group homes submit an “incident report” to CCL when a foster youth AWOLs, and complete a missing person’s report with the local police department. At her other group homes in San Jose, which she has operated since 2001, the staff submit the requisite reports to the police, CCL, and the child’s social worker, and then notify them when the child returns. According to Corbett, the police in San Jose do not come out to the house after receiving an AWOL report but in Redwood City, they showed up after every report.

Captain John Spicer of the Redwood City Police Department said he could not comment directly on R.I.S.E., citing the possibility of a hearing for which he might be called to testify. However, he did say there are reasons law enforcement responds differently to AWOL reports about foster youth who are not commercially sexually exploited and those who are. He referred to this as the “at-risk component of the report.”

A bedroom at RISE House in Redwood City, Calif. Photo: Annie Corbett

If a foster youth who has AWOL’d has been found to run away, for example, to her brother’s house, Spicer said, that does not make it an “at-risk case.” But when the youth reported as AWOL is known to be exploited, “then what you’ve just told me as a reporting party to a police officer,” Spicer said, “is these girls are going to a place where they will be exploited, they’ll be engaged in illegal sexual activity with adult males under the supervision of a pimp who could at any time hurt or kill them…that puts them in a much more at-risk situation, and statutes kick in that mandate we handle it a lot differently than your average reported-missing juvenile.”

According to Corbett, she tried to tell the police that coming to the house every time “was going to be a huge burden on them,” given that the population the home is serving is known to AWOL frequently as part of their recovery. Additionally, she was concerned from the beginning that the police presence in the house would create a hostile environment for the residents.

Advocate Ortiz agrees. “The police shouldn’t be there – because then it’s not a home,” Ortiz said. “If a response actually has to happen, they should change the way it’s done. Send a plainclothes officer in an unmarked car, and meet with the youth in an office instead of the main living area. They should not be interacting with any of the other children in the home.”

Both licensing staff and the police were coming into the house so frequently, Corbett said, she and her staff had little time for anything other than responding to their requests. Detailed in the facility evaluation reports, requests and citations made by licensing focused on the program’s AWOL procedures as well as the residents’ school attendance, staff training and staff-to-client ratios.

Corbett says she is the first to admit that her program needed improvement, and she was eager to hire more staff and increase training, especially as it would help the program get ready for the implementation of Continuum of Care Reform.

While they tried to implement the changes the state asked of them and asked for the time and support to achieve them, Corbett said they got neither time nor support. “Instead of CCL standing behind the agency they licensed,” she said, “they took the stance of harassing and intimidating us.”

According to Corbett, she requested and received files from CCL that confirmed her sense that Redwood City Police Department pressured CCL to shut the house down. Among the 500 pages of documents, Corbett said, was a report about a conversation initiated by the police department with CCL in July in which the police referred to the R.I.S.E. house as a nuisance, and asked what CCL could do to close it.

Asked if he would like to comment on that reported conversation, Captain Spicer replied:  “I think the best way to represent how I feel about the matter is simply to say that we feel that human trafficking is among the most deplorable conditions facing our society. Any legitimate program that clearly succeeds in channeling CSEC victims out of the life through evidence-based practices will be supported by the Redwood City Police Department.”

Asked about CDSS’s support for R.I.S.E.’s harm reduction program model, Michael Weston, deputy director of public affairs and outreach programs for CDSS, said that the department understands the need for flexibility in residential programs designed for commercially sexually exploited children. The concerns the state had about R.I.S.E., he said, are detailed in the citations made against the agency.

According to Weston, R.I.S.E. failed to establish a therapeutic program for the residents, and CDSS provided support through technical assistance over the course of several months in an effort to give the program the opportunity to meet their expectations. “And it came down to: we weren’t seeing the progress that the conversations discussed, particularly in the areas of shadowing the kids, ramping up the staffing, and how they were handling critical incidents where children were AWOL’ing.”

Corbett says she and her staff felt that the police put the program “in a vice grip” because they didn’t want the program in their city.

Spicer of the Redwood City police denied this, saying, “We share a deep concern for the trafficked minors. There’s no debate that this is a population that must be served differently than other at-risk minors.”

To that end, he said, he brought Corbett in to train officers so they could “change their thinking from being an enforcement officer to being an advocate for these minors.”

Amber was one of the youth who AWOL’d after CDSS began requiring R.I.S.E. to terminate youth after five AWOLs, and as it was her fifth time to run away, Corbett and her staff were required to terminate her from the program. Exploited from the time she was 12, she had been making progress at R.I.S.E. in the slow work of exiting the exploitation yet, according to Corbett, after being terminated from the program, Amber returned to her exploiter.

Now that R.I.S.E. has closed, the teens who had been living there have been “transitioned into a mix of foster family homes and congregate care,” according to Weston of CDSS.

Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, says “we’re in a period of experimentation” in terms of how best to provide residential services to commercially sexually exploited minors. “Part of the problem is there’s not a whole lot of leeway or space given to folks to do that experiment. It can get real hairy real quick.”

“To their credit,” Schroeder said, “CDSS, on a policy level, is clear that they want these kids served, and they understand the risks of serving them. And they know licensing has never had to deal with this kind of thing before and they’re not quite sure how to do it … So they’ve got a big task ahead of them.”

Told of the closing of R.I.S.E., advocate Ortiz said, “We can all agree that this situation with all the questions left on both sides emphasizes how serving this population becomes extremely hard.”

Corbett says through her experience with R.I.S.E., she sees “more than ever the marginalization and discrimination against these vulnerable and traumatized kids,” and still believes they “just need an agency/someone to believe in them and not kick them out the second they aren’t perfect.”

Although San Mateo County is now without a home for sexually exploited foster youth, Corbett says she is in negotiations with another county to open a new short-term residential therapeutic program for exploited minors. This time, she plans to do extensive preliminary and ongoing collaborative planning with local law enforcement and other agencies.

*Name of the minor has been changed.

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