January 3, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
This is still another excellent article on the extreme cases of children in need of care in California and how the state fails them (ProPublica, 12/31/15). And yet…
Not long ago, I wrote this piece, also from ProPublica, also written by Joaquin Sapien and also about the ongoing mess that is California’s Department of Social Services. Its focus then was on an organization called FamiliesFirst that ran a group home for the most difficult-to-deal-with teenagers in the state. Incompetence and malfeasance eventually led to shuttering the facility by state officials. Good as that article was, it suffered from its too-exclusive focus on FamiliesFirst. The simple fact is that a single facility, whether good, bad or indifferent, likely reveals little about the system of child welfare in California as a whole.
And the same is true of today’s linked-to article. It follows the state’s utterly dysfunctional efforts to deal with Deshaun Becton who is now 14. It’s a tragic story. Deshaun has needs that are very difficult — perhaps impossible — to meet, for anyone. As such, he falls within a very narrow range of kids who not only aren’t being helped, but very possibly can’t be.
Deshaun’s mother was 14 when she gave birth to him on Jan. 30, 2001. They spent their first night together in a hotel, and over the next several years mother and child bounced from emergency shelters to foster homes to the care of relatives. Court records show they ricocheted up and down the state, sometimes together, often apart.
When Deshaun was three, a young couple considered adopting him. But medical records show he suffered “meltdowns that lasted hours,” and frequently bit, kicked and screamed at those who came near him.
Other descriptions of his behavior make it seem to me that Deshaun suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, but he’s never received that diagnosis. He’s mildly autistic and obviously unable to control his impulses and moods, but he’s not psychotic, despite having taken anti-psychotic medications for much of his life.
But, bad as his origins were, two foster parents came into his life who are upright, responsible and amazingly resilient in trying to deal with Deshaun’s many problems that come between him and a normal life.
Enter, almost by accident, Veronice and Lamont Becton, a working class, African-American couple from Oakland and its suburbs. The Bectons had casually discussed adoption for years. They both came from supportive, two-parent, middle class families, and they were proud of the life they had started together, one of stability and faith. They had one son, but also a spare bedroom room in their newly purchased, three-bedroom home in Antioch.
Lamont is a firefighter and Veronice a registered nurse. They’ve formed a solid family and came from solid families. What better situation for any kid, but particularly one like Deshaun? The simple truth is, he couldn’t have done better.
But it wasn’t good enough. Deshaun’s wild mood swings, physical violence and apparently unlimited energy eventually forced the Bectons to conclude that he had to be elsewhere, i.e. in the state system that’s supposed to deal with problem kids. It too would prove to be far from sufficient to Deshaun’s needs.
That’s not for want of trying. The article estimates that the state of California has spent upwards of $1 million in trying to address Deshaun’s needs. The fact is that the state has no facility that can do so. Veronice and Lamont have tried countless facilities, but none has done much for Deshaun or for long.
That brings us to the article’s main point — that when California runs out of places to house kids like Deshaun, it ships them out of state, sometimes as far away as Florida, but mostly to Utah where there are about 100 different facilities that claim to be just what the doctor ordered. For Deshaun, at least, they’re not.
What’s worse is the fact that California has little to say about the quality of care provided at facilities not within its borders and less ability to inspect them or hold them to a standard of care. Back in the 1990s, the state legislature sharply curtailed the practice of sending kids out of state, after one boy was killed in a “boot camp” in Arizona.
That worked for a while, but more recently, DSS has been skirting the legislative strictures. ProPublica concluded that about 900 Golden State kids were sent to out of state last year. California strictly controls the type of facilities in which its kids can be placed, so it sends the tough cases to states with looser regulations.
“What’s happening in California is dishonest,” said Ken Berrick, the founder of Seneca Family of Agencies, a major child services agency based in Oakland. “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.”
There are signs that California has a limited ability to guarantee the health and welfare of the children it sends beyond its borders.
That’s putting it mildly. The truth seems to be that, for many kids like Deshaun, there is no answer.
California’s detention facilities grew so bad they have been all but eradicated. And its group homes proved such failures that the latest reform plan calls for drastically limiting them, as well.
The plan pushes responsibility for troubled children back to individual counties, giving them some money to help fund alternatives, though it is unclear if that will be enough.
Some counties, challenged to deliver individualized services to children at home, have come to see the financial appeal of sending away children caught up in the juvenile justice system or grappling with profound mental health issues.
“We have had an influx of kids that have mental health issues like schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or are just highly aggressive. And unfortunately, we just don’t have a lot of facilities here that can handle what we have been seeing,” said Amy Jacobs, deputy probation officer for Stanislaus County in California’s central valley, which sent 16 children to out-of-state group homes this past year.
“Lately, when we look to out of state programs, it’s usually because they offer more extensive mental health services,” she said.
But Lamont and Veronice tried several places in Utah, only to have Deshaun run away or be physically abused.
And that’s the problem with the article. Wherever the Bectons look, they may simply find no answer for Deshaun; there may be no facility in which he can grow, prosper and become the type of healthy, productive citizen we’d all hope he could be. By focusing on him, the article necessarily avoids the more mainstream kids who can be helped and the broader child-welfare system that tries to do exactly that.
Sadly, there will always be some kids in Deshaun’s boat. There will be children who confound our every effort to help them. To say that we can’t help Deshaun Becton is not to say that the child welfare system in California is broken, only that humans are imperfect and don’t have a solution to every problem.
And yet, without intending to do so, the article illustrates a point I’ve made too many times to count. Look at how many resources we devote to trying to address the broad and deep range of problems experienced by kids who come into this world in deficient family situations. Deshaun Becton may have had the same problems irrespective of his family, but for most children, their family lives matter almost more than anything.
Was his mother addicted to drugs during her pregnancy with Deshaun? Did she drink alcohol? Was she an alcoholic? Did she physically abuse the boy as one part of the article suggests? About Deshaun, we’ll never know. But about countless other kids, we know all too well. And what we know is that traditional two-parent families are best for kids. Period.
Children born into single-parent households do worse than other kids on average. And when they “do worse,” they use social, medical, mental health, educational, criminal and other resources as no one else does. Remember, one 14-year-old boy has already cost the State of California $1 million, and he’s not even close to done yet.
The point being that we’re wasting our money, our time and our energy. And as long as we continue to pretend that single-parent families are just as good as the two-parent variety, we’ll continue to do so. Fix the family and we’ll fix so much else.
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