FamiliesFirst Debacle Helped Change How California Treats Foster Kids

September 27, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve written a lot about the incompetence, overreaching and under-reaching of child welfare agencies nationwide.  Much of that is just run-of-the-mill bureaucratic bungling.  I’ve said that the secrecy in which CPS agencies operate makes for bad practice as do the high caseloads and low pay for caseworkers.  I’ve said that federal incentives encourage state agencies to take kids from their parents, harming the children in the process.

But this excellent article is different (ProPublica, 4/2/15).  It’s about a tiny subset of kids who, generally speaking, may be beyond the types of fixes I’ve promoted.  

It shows us children who need a lot more help than most parents can provide.  It shows the fate that awaits them at the hands of a state (California) that farms them out to group homes operated by private companies.  In the process, it shows just how dysfunctional our system of attempting to care for children has become.  And it shows that, finally, the State of California is trying to do something about that.

The article tells of a perfect storm of too few state resources, a cash-strapped privately-owned and operated group home, administrators who didn’t know basic regulations, cuts in personnel, limited training, little-to-no supervision by the state Department of Social Services and increasing involvement by the police.  

All of that degenerated into a situation that can rightly be called ‘chaotic.’  Eventually, the group home simply self-destructed.  Toward the end, in June of 2013, employees at the home were making hundreds of mandated reports to the DSS every month.  In April alone they reported 252 incidents ranging from children running away, to drug use, to self-harm to suicidal ideation and worse.  By then, the police had been called to the home so many times that they were complaining to supervisors who may have secretly tried to close the place down.

And yet, despite all that, only one person in the company and no one anywhere else suffered any type of punishment.  The home’s director lost her job.

The company running the sinking ship was called FamiliesFirst and the home was located in Davis California, a moderately-sized city whose principal feature is the University of California campus there.  The group housed between 63 and 72 kids.  They were called Level 14 kids which means that, under California nomenclature, they were the most extreme cases of emotional dysfunction.  They were the kids who’d been rejected by foster care and who needed more or less constant supervision by highly-trained mental health professionals.  

They didn’t get it at FamiliesFirst.  Well before 2013, the company was in a financial bind and exacerbated the problem by hiring a director for its Davis home who had almost no experience in counselling children.

When EMQ FamiliesFirst asked Audrie Meyer to lead the Davis home in July 2012, she was surprised. By her own admission, she was not an obvious candidate. Meyer, who is 58 years old, had spent most of her professional life working as a tech consultant. Holding a master’s in business administration, she helped build information systems for Pepsi and advised the French computer firm Groupe Bull on strategic planning.

Her job was to cut costs and she did so at the expense of children’s welfare.

It was essential, she was told, that expenses be brought in line…

Meyer enacted policy changes at a furious pace. In November, she lowered the campus’s maximum to 63 children, laying off at least six full-time employees. By December she had eliminated all the part-time workers the home had relied on to fill in for staff absences.

At a time of reduced staff, she also ordered sharp reductions in the use of restraints to keep children from harming themselves or others.  Both DSS and the company had encouraged the reduction, but what doing so meant in practice was a sharp increase in runaways from the Davis campus.

Soon as many as a dozen children at a time could be simply missing and unaccounted for.  Often they were in town panhandling, robbing stores or in a nearby park drinking, smoking pot and having sex.  Some stayed gone for days.  If a parent called, he/she might be told the home had no idea of where their child might be.  Residents of Davis grew alarmed.

And so the police stepped in.

For the first five months of 2013, the Davis Police Department received more than 500 calls involving FamiliesFirst. Most of the calls came from staff who were asking for assistance on campus. But many came from town: the Taco Bell on G Street, when children from the home terrorized employees and customers; the Sudwerk Brewery, around the corner from campus, where girls were often found bleeding after cutting themselves with broken bottles. Residents complained about kids harassing pedestrians. Store owners complained about kids shoplifting. Sometimes the kids themselves would call or show up at the station, demanding that the police take them to a psychiatric hospital.

With so few staff members at the home, those who remained began treating the police as surrogate employees of FamiliesFirst.

The home’s administrators wanted officers to escort children back onto the campus when they ran away and help subdue them if they became unruly once they arrived…

“Entire shifts were spent chasing around runaway kids,” [Assistant Chief Darren] Pytel says. “The staff, even when they knew where the kids were, refused to come out and pick them up. They wanted us to drive them back, as if we were a taxicab service. Eventually, I couldn’t walk into my office without one of my patrol officers saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this place.’”

Weirdly, FamiliesFirst Director Audrie Meyer seemed to believe that the home had no responsibility for keeping kids from wandering away.  This was a group home charged with the care of children who were so deeply disturbed that literally no other place in the state would take them.  But somehow Meyer had come to believe, against the protests of many of her staff, that the kids were free to come and go as they saw fit.  According to her,

The children, young and vulnerable as they were, were going to have to examine their own decisions about why they were leaving and what they were doing while they were gone. What happened to the children outside its walls was not the home’s responsibility.

Stranger still, her superior at FamiliesFirst did nothing to disabuse her of that notion.

“It was really clear that nothing was being done to change what was becoming significant criminal behavior,” Pytel says. “What was so disturbing to me was that this facility was full of social workers and people whose job it was to help these minors, but that was not happening. These minors were not being protected. They were being victimized to a point that was just absolutely shocking.”

The chaos at the FamiliesFirst home only widened when, apparently fed up with conditions, members started resigning.  Meyer herself described a facility utterly out of control.

Every group home in California must file a report to the Department of Social Services for a range of incidents, accidental or deliberate, alleged or substantiated. The roughly 500 reports that the home filed during the first four months of 2013 paint a picture of a facility whose staff and administration were overmatched. Meyer says that by April and May there were likely hundreds more reports that were never filed, in violation of state rules. “The volume went from 300 a month to 1,000 a month,” she says, “and we didn’t have enough trained people to file them.”

On June 2, 2013, following allegations that an 11-year-old girl had been raped by two boys, the police arrived in force and effectively shut the place down.

Over the next several days, the campus began to empty out as parents turned up, searching for their children and for answers about what had happened to them. Social workers scrambled to find alternate placements, sending some kids to emergency shelters. Others remained in dormitory rooms, where police tracked them down to ask a long-overdue question: Do you feel safe? State officials opened the inevitable investigation, interrogating the staff and combing through records.

The outrage, the catastrophe that was the FamiliesFirst home in Davis was the fault of the company that ran it.  Greater incompetence would be hard to imagine.  But of course the Department of Social Services that oversees foster care and group homes in California bears much of the blame too.  Over the months leading to the closure of the home, it had received about a dozen complaints, but had never moved to improve the situation or shutter the home.

But only one person was punished for the debacle that endangered some of the most vulnerable children in the state.  Audrie Meyer was asked to resign and to agree “never to work for another entity overseen by the department “for the balance of [her] life.”

FamiliesFirst went its way unscathed.

EMQ FamiliesFirst, accused by the state of having failed to safeguard the children at the home, signed a stipulation conceding widespread violations. It continues to be one of the largest providers of social services in California. Gordon Richardson, who insisted to the state that he was not aware of the depth of the home’s problems, remains a senior executive at the nonprofit.

If there’s a silver lining to this case, it’s that the state has altered policy away from group homes toward what’s called “wraparound” care.  That means that, in all but the direst of cases, children will be kept at home and mental health professionals will oversee their care there.

That of course is in line with what Molly McTierney McGrath and countless others counsel for children in problematic home environments.  Being taken from home and parents seldom makes children better.  On the contrary, it tends to traumatize them, exacerbating whatever behavioral problems they have.

Whatever the course of children’s welfare in California, the FamiliesFirst story once again points the way toward sane and constructive solutions.  That way is toward families, toward keeping kids with their parents and providing services to them in their homes.  The FamiliesFirst story, horrifying as it is, is only one of many.  It’s yet another story of how states get it wrong when they try to substitute state care for parental care.  Too bad so many have suffered so much so long for states to finally start learning that lesson.


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