Fostering Failure: How shelters criminalize hundreds of children in California – San Francisco Chronicle

The offenses begin innocently enough.

Kids watching a movie smear cake frosting on each other. A Monopoly game is overturned. A distraught child hurls whatever is within reach — a tissue box, a shoe, a blanket, dominoes, a cell phone.

In California’s shelters for abused and neglected children, these youthful outbursts can become crimes. The instigators of the cake fight are arrested and accused of inciting a mob. A girl who grabbed her stuffed bear and blanket before flinging books is taken into custody for assault. Another girl is booked at juvenile hall for battery after hitting someone with a pack of hot dog buns during a tussle.

The county shelters in the nation’s largest foster care system are supposed to serve as a refuge for vulnerable children removed from unsafe homes. Instead, they have funneled hundreds of children, some as young as 8 years old, into the criminal justice system for relatively minor incidents, a Chronicle investigation has found.

Data compiled by The Chronicle show more than 14,000 calls for service to police and sheriff’s departments in 2015 and 2016 from California’s 10 shelter campuses. The majority of those calls, some repeated for the same incident, sought help tracking down foster children who left without permission.

But police and sheriff interventions led to at least 485 arrests, citations and detainments for alleged criminal offenses. In more than 370 instances, foster children were booked at juvenile halls, receiving punishment instead of the protection of child welfare agencies charged with their care and supervision.

Most of the arrests stemmed from damage to shelter property or scuffles with staff or other children that did not cause serious injury. Few involved drugs, robberies or deadly weapons.

“There’s something wrong with the culture of these places when the answer to any behavior problem is calling the cops,” said Marin County attorney Jan Sherwood, a leading specialist in child welfare law. “By definition, you’re dealing with kids who have been neglected and abused and traumatized, so it’s insane to say the minute the kids get angry and upset, we call the cops and send them to juvenile hall.”

The Mary Graham Children’s Shelter outside Stockton, which housed 515 children last year, relied more heavily on law enforcement than any other shelter in the state, calling the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office an average of nine times a day.

In 2015 and 2016, children from Mary Graham were booked 199 times at the county’s juvenile hall, a bleak concrete fortress ringed by razor-wire fencing that looms just a half mile from the shelter’s pastel cottages.

In about two-thirds of those bookings, dubious charges were quickly dismissed. Other children spent days to weeks in jail before their cases were thrown out by prosecutors or judges.

Law enforcement calls from Mary Graham have dropped this year, and children were arrested less frequently at shelters elsewhere in the state. But youth advocates who reviewed The Chronicle’s findings said the overall level of policing was still concerning, given that shelters serve children who are in distress and known to act out.

There were 11 to 66 juvenile hall bookings during the past two years from shelters and their surrounding campuses in Orange, Sonoma, San Diego, Sacramento and Ventura counties.

In many cases, children were arrested for behavior toward their caregivers that staff are trained to expect in their jobs — incidents that involved kicking, shoving and biting.

At the shelter campus in Ventura County, which includes separate residential treatment programs, a 14-year-old was accused of assault with a deadly weapon in December after poking a caregiver with a candy cane. The teen was held for four days in juvenile hall. And at the shelter in Imperial County, a youth spent the night in jail in June for simple battery after clinging to a staff member’s leg and refusing to let go.

In its examination of children’s shelters, The Chronicle reviewed calls for service, arrest logs and juvenile hall bookings from 14 police, sheriff’s and probation departments. When law enforcement data were not available, reporters relied on arrest numbers provided by the shelters, including those in Orange, Imperial and Kern counties.

Reporters also obtained more than 950 staff-written incident reports that revealed a range of emotional crises behind many of the children’s actions: Some were anguished over missing a family visit or fearful about an impending move. Others felt unfairly treated by shelter rules denying them access to snacks, phone calls or the freedom to leave the campus.

Child welfare experts said that foster youths’ challenging behaviors ought to be met with counseling and a calm approach. The experience of being arrested, handcuffed and jailed, even briefly, can have lasting impacts, from deepened trauma to greater odds of a criminal future. Some abused and neglected children found responsible for even low-level offenses are ejected from foster care altogether, with law enforcement replacing social workers in the management of their lives.

“They used the cops as a scare tactic,” said former foster youth Ashley Hensley, 24, who was arrested twice at the Mary Graham Children’s Shelter and is now struggling with drug addiction and homelessness.

“Instead of giving me help, they gave me a juvenile hall cell.”

Four of California’s shelters reported very few to no arrests and bookings in 2015 and 2016. At shelters in Placer, Imperial and Kern counties, there were only a handful of incidents, according to law enforcement and facility data. Meanwhile, no children were booked into juvenile hall from the San Mateo County shelter, one of the smallest in California, serving just 33 youths last year.

At all shelters, directors interviewed for this report said their staff called law enforcement only in extreme health and safety emergencies. Employees also receive specialized training in working with children who have experienced trauma and are aware of the job hazards.

“We want staff to understand that if you’re working here, there’s a potential you’re going to get hit, and that bumps and bruises are a part of this job,” said Karen Gregg, training manager at the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento. “Unless it’s a safety risk we just can’t manage.”

Indeed, in a small number of incidents leading to arrests last year, first aid had to be administered, including an episode in August when a Sacramento shelter worker was treated for whiplash and bruising after a 16-year-old girl hit her with a fire extinguisher.

Law enforcement leaders in some localities said the children must learn there are consequences to their actions and that, at times, arrests are necessary.

“If a resident knows it’s OK to break a staff member’s nose, or bite them until they bleed, they will all do that,” said Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, whose agency responds to the shelter in Camarillo, a rural community just east of Oxnard. “There has to be some level of accountability.”

Located in communities from Sonoma Wine Country to the desert just north of the Mexico border, California’s shelters are the first stop for children taken from their parents by county social workers. They also house children who have been turned away from group homes and foster families and are awaiting their next placement. About 5,400 of the 85,000 California children who passed through foster care last year were brought to shelters. The infants to 18-year-olds stayed from less than a day to months at a time.

Shelters are run by county governments or by nonprofits under contract, receiving local, state and federal funds as well as donor support. A division of the state Department of Social Services licenses the shelters and oversees their health and safety conditions.

Most shelters require counselors to have some college education or experience working with children. But pay can range widely, depending on employee qualifications. The shelter in Sonoma County pays counselors up to $39 an hour, while the shelter in Sacramento pays as little as $10.50 an hour — $2 less than the starting wage at the local In-N-Out Burger.

Over the past two years, California has begun a historic shift away from residential foster care facilities, decreasing reliance on shelters and placing only the most emotionally troubled children in group care. Fewer counties will operate shelters next year, with those that remain limiting children’s stays to just 10 days before finding them a home.

At five shelters visited by The Chronicle, reporters found compassionate care and welcoming surroundings for children who often arrive frightened, hungry and bedraggled from violent and chaotic homes. Meals included tomato-saffron rice, Thai curry, Vietnamese pho and barbecued baby back ribs. Children at some shelters are greeted by colorful quilts, inspirational murals and portraits of the Obama family, even hair salons and climbing walls.

Many staff who work on shelter campuses describe their affection and admiration for the young people they serve, who remain resilient despite suffering so much adversity.

Vicki Murphy, a director at the Ventura County shelter run by the Casa Pacifica Centers for Children and Families, keeps scented candles lit in her office, where children can help themselves to platters of hard-boiled eggs, oranges and lollipops.

Murphy said seeing children taken to juvenile hall disturbs her, so she tries to defuse any blowups. She implores officers who do make arrests not to handcuff the children, reminding them: “This could ruin a kid’s life.” More often than not, she added, what children acting out really need is “people to love them up and say: ‘You’ve had a terrible day.’”

But developing that sort of relationship is difficult in a shelter setting, where children are supervised by constantly rotating shifts of staff. At one shelter, employees oversee children from a workstation they call “the control center.” Furniture is often bolted in place, and televisions and windows are reinforced with Plexiglas to prevent damage.

At the shelter in Orange County, armed sheriff’s officers are stationed on-site at all hours. In San Diego, some children are asked to pass through metal detectors. And throughout the state, children’s backpacks, purses and pockets are searched for “contraband” when they return from being off campus.

“Even if you ran a shelter perfectly and you resourced it in the most extravagant way, it would still be inadequate,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, a former foster youth who is now executive director of San Francisco’s Youth Law Center, which has worked to improve shelter care for 25 years.

The majority of California counties, such as San Francisco, do not have shelters. Instead, children removed from their parents are taken directly to relatives, foster family homes or assessment centers for 24 to 72 hours.

“We blame law enforcement intervention in shelters on youth,” Rodriguez said. “But we deserve the blame — for tolerating facilities that are perfectly designed to fail youth in the very moment they most need our help.”

Nowhere in California’s network of shelters is law enforcement more prevalent than at Mary Graham in the Central Valley farmlands. The shelter called sheriff’s deputies on children so often, advocates say, cells at the neighboring San Joaquin County juvenile hall became de facto time-out rooms.

Ashley Hensley came to know both facilities well. During nine years in California’s child welfare system, she moved 32 times between foster and group homes around the state. Eight of those stops were at Mary Graham, leading to two detentions in juvenile hall after she was accused of assaults on children and staff at the shelter.

Social workers removed Ashley from her family home in 2002, shortly after she turned 9, because of sexual abuse and severe neglect. For years, she was desperate to be adopted and reconnect with her six siblings. “At times,” a social worker once wrote, “she would rock so hard in the family rocking chair to calm down that she would scoot herself across the family room.”

By age 11, Ashley had been placed on three adult psychotropic drugs to help her sleep and subdue her anxiety. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, she also required strict dietary and glucose monitoring and multiple daily insulin injections, medical needs few caregivers were willing to take on. The continued rejection and upheaval led to outbursts and shouting fits that made her difficult to care for.

“I had just been ripped away from my family,” Ashley said during a recent interview in a friend’s trailer. “I was an angry kid who needed help, who needed to be able to talk to somebody, who needed to not just be considered a problem — I needed someone who cared.”

But at Mary Graham, her flareups were met by armed sheriffs.

In 2002, the same year Ashley arrived at Mary Graham, then-shelter director Brian Woods acknowledged there was confusion among staff about when to call law enforcement, but also reiterated that police were sometimes necessary. Woods advised staff in an internal memo to avoid “a power struggle” and “slow down, let emotions settle” when handling difficult situations. Yet in some cases, his memo added, shelter youth do need the “‘heavy hand of the law’ to influence the choices that they make.”

Little appears to have changed by 2006, when Mary Graham staff called law enforcement on a 17-year-old boy described as having special needs whose compulsive condition led him to bathe frequently.

According to attorneys, staff and juvenile hall records, the teen was allowed to take some toys into the shower on Feb. 24. Admonishing him about a soaked carpet the last time he bathed, a shelter staffer warned that if he made a mess again, the consequences would be more serious.

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During the next 21 minutes, the teen could be heard “play-talking” to himself; water, meanwhile, seeped into the carpet outside.

After the shower, a staff report noted, the teen kept making excuses and refused to take responsibility for the leaked water. When he “realized that we were not giving in,” the report continued, “he began to say, ‘Well, I’ll just kill myself.’”

Agitated, the boy leaped over the shelter’s gate and ran to a nearby field. The assistant director at the time, Gary Gunderson, now the shelter’s director, told an employee to call the sheriff. The teen was arrested and booked into juvenile hall for allegedly causing $1,100 in damage. The vandalism charges were later dropped, and he was returned to the shelter.

Within months, state licensing officials cited the shelter for violating the teen’s personal rights by threatening to call the sheriff and for failing to adequately supervise and care for him. They also cited Mary Graham for using law enforcement as “a behavior intervention tool” and sending children between 8 and 10 years old to juvenile hall.

Yet heavy policing at the shelter continued. San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputies told The Chronicle that Mary Graham’s constant calls have been a source of some frustration until this year, when the facility’s daily population dropped from as many as 53 children to just 11 this month as a result of statewide reforms.

“People used to dread working that area because you would spend so much time at Mary Graham,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Irene Shelvay.

The Mary Graham campus resembles an elementary school, complete with a classroom, library, gymnasium and jungle gym. But in 2015 and 2016, San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputies received 5,049 calls for service from the shelter — a frequency comparable to one of San Francisco’s most policed corners on 16th and Mission streets.

As at other shelters, the vast majority were reports of runaways: youths who left the shelter grounds for things as harmless as searching for a Wi-Fi hotspot or as dangerous as connecting with pimps. Shelters, which are not locked, file missing persons reports whenever they lose contact with the children in their care.

Youth advocates say children run from facilities where they feel unsafe or disconnected, and a high number of calls for missing youths raises concerns about staff and the quality of programming. In some counties, police handcuff runaways when returning them to the shelter, even though the children have committed no crimes. Frequently leaving the shelter without permission also can lead to early brushes with the juvenile justice system, including court dates and community service.

At Mary Graham, sheriff’s deputies were called or responded to routine teenage behavior, at times intervening because they happened to be on campus for other matters. Such incidents included a child who refused to take medication, allegations of consensual sex, a pair of kids “horseplaying” who turned over a garbage can, and children clashing over couch cushions.

Many law enforcement interventions led to arrest. In 2015 and 2016, children from Mary Graham were taken to juvenile hall an average of almost two times per week. Those youths were disproportionately African American, and girls were arrested more often than boys. In the general California youth population, boys are twice as likely to be arrested for misdemeanors and five times as likely to be arrested for felonies.

Asked about the unusual proportion of girls arrested, shelter director Gunderson offered this rationale: “As a general rule, if you’ve got guys, they’ll threaten, be aggressive, posture. If one of the girls says ‘I’m gonna beat your ass,’ they’re gonna do it. If you’re talking physical child-on-child violence, as a general rule, I think the girls are more likely to go to blows.”

For Ashley Hensley, the time she spent in juvenile hall lockup only aggravated her already volatile behavior, she said. In detention, she had no visitors, confirming her feelings of abandonment.

“It’s not teaching you a lesson,” she said. “It’s making you more angry.”

Psychiatric nurse practitioner Maryellen Dyer, who first met Ashley when she was 13 and cared for her at Casa Pacifica, has remained her friend and sole support ever since.

Dyer said Ashley’s “zero to 100” aggression and fight-or-flight behaviors resulted from an absence of loving relationships — connections that are rare in short-term stays at shelters.

An accumulation of stressors can overcome traumatized children’s capacity to cope, child psychiatrists say, affecting the brain’s ability to regulate emotion. As with war veterans, triggers can be as subtle as a sudden noise, or even a particular time of day or night. Some children withdraw or try to harm themselves. Others can become explosive.

“The healing piece for the brain is relationships and trust — all the things that can get ripped away from foster children at a young age,” Dyer said. “The worst thing we can do is put them in jail and isolate them.”

Gunderson, a former YMCA director who has worked at Mary Graham for 14 years, calls the children who come through his shelter “amazing” and “awesome.” He said his job is to help them feel more trusting and less defeated.

“Our shelter staff, we care about every kid who comes through our door, and we don’t give up on our kids,” he said. “We tell the kids, ‘We do not want you ending up going to juvenile hall, and we want you to make choices that are going to keep you safe.’”

Gunderson and members of his staff said they contact law enforcement only when an incident involves serious injuries or when other children are put in harm’s way. Yet just last year, he advocated for a sheriff’s substation on the shelter grounds, with deputies posted around the clock — a plan ultimately rejected by Michael Miller, director of the San Joaquin County Human Services Agency, which oversees the shelter.

Gunderson likened sheriff’s deputies to counselors, suggesting that they could help counter negative views many foster children have of law enforcement after seeing their parents arrested for drug crimes or domestic violence.

“It would be like our shelter social workers,” Gunderson said. “They could go around and interact with our kids, talk with our kids — they’re relationship-building.”

A slight man with blond hair, Gunderson stood stiffly during a two-hour interview with The Chronicle because of chronic back pain. Five years ago, he said, he put a 17-year-old girl in a facedown restraint because she was trying to leave campus without permission and he believed she would be sexually exploited. During the struggle, Gunderson’s neck was broken, resulting in surgery and a months-long leave.

A half-dozen current and former Mary Graham employees agreed that even the most compassionate workers can be tested in the shelter’s often high-tension environment, which they said has become more volatile because of a constant churn of ill-prepared, part-time counselors.

One worker, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said that in recent years children often remained at the shelter for too long, causing them to become more desperate and act out. Most staffers who spoke to The Chronicle said that having the children arrested only worsened their already precarious situations.

Probation supervisor Damon Evans, who oversees intake at the San Joaquin County juvenile hall, said many children coming from Mary Graham are “impulsive, less sophisticated” and should not be locked up.

“Maybe they’re throwing a chair, a juice box, a shoe, slamming a door on staff’s arm,” Evans said. “We’re getting a lot of kids from Mary Graham shelter who should stay in Mary Graham shelter.”

Over the past two years, the county juvenile probation department declined to move forward with 124 of the 199 cases in which children from Mary Graham were brought to juvenile hall, finding the arrests stemmed from incidents that did not justify incarceration. Those bookings were closed without charges, but the arrests remain on the foster youths’ records.

Of the remaining cases, only 31 had resulted in youths being found responsible for crimes as of February; the rest were either dismissed in court or pending at the time of publication.

Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Puckett, who oversees juvenile cases, said he always looks for alternatives to prosecuting young children.

“I decline many, many cases from Mary Graham, a huge percentage,” Puckett said. “If the kids are 10 or 11 years old, I don’t want that child who’s in foster care to mix with others in the hall if it’s not necessary for their safety or the safety of others.”

Pulling a child out of the foster care system and locking them up can be derailing. In several California counties, and across much of the nation, foster youth who land in the juvenile justice system must forfeit what the child welfare system has to offer. That includes social workers, foster homes and services for their parents such as substance-abuse treatment, parenting classes and domestic-violence education that could allow children to safely return home.

And in detention, Puckett said, young children’s “mental state can deteriorate and they come out and they’re worse off than when they went in.”

Brandy Olalia, who at age 20 is in extended foster care, has clear memories of her only time in detention, the result of an emotional blowup that led to three counts of vandalism and resisting arrest.

Then 15, she was sent to the Fresno County juvenile hall from a group home after she grew angry about being denied a call to her social worker. In a rage, she threw food in the kitchen, splashed water in the office and tipped over a computer. Police were called, but she barricaded herself in her bedroom until officers forced their way in, according to reports of the August 2012 incident.

In the juvenile lockup, Brandy was placed in a cell between a teen facing gang charges and another girl accused of killing her stepfather. In one frightening incident, she was doused with pepper spray and splashed with someone else’s blood during a brawl in the jail yard, she recalled.

“I was so scared, I begged my social worker to get me out,” she said.

After all charges were dropped five years ago, Brandy was sent to a residential treatment program located on Casa Pacifica’s 24-acre campus. There, she continued to have aggressive outbursts, breaking windows, smashing furniture and beating holes in walls.

“I didn’t want anybody to see me in a good light, so I was just constantly doing bad things to show people that I don’t need them,” she said. “I just wanted everybody to leave me alone.”

Law enforcement contacts are not unusual at Casa Pacifica — in 2015 and 2016, there were 107 arrests, citations and detainments at the shelter and its surrounding campus. But Brandy got a reprieve.

Although she had previously faced criminal charges for vandalism, at Casa Pacifica she was given the task of cleaning up the messes she and other youths had made. Robert Van Gundy, a soft-spoken, ponytailed facilities manager, directed the work.

“I had her cutting rebar with a hacksaw — trying to make it as labor intensive as possible,” he said. “She enjoyed the challenge, she enjoyed the labor, she enjoyed the camaraderie.”

Brandy describes Van Gundy as her first friend.

“When he handed me the hacksaw, he showed me a little bit of trust,” she said. “I felt normal. I didn’t feel like I was some crazy kid that couldn’t have anything but butter knives.”

Several national organizations are working in California and across the country to keep foster youth like Brandy out of the criminal justice system. To that end, they recommend training staff to defuse volatile incidents and using mental health clinicians, not police, as first responders.

In California, a sweeping  effort underway to keep foster youths out of residential centers unless they need treatment will leave fewer children in shelters for shorter periods of time, reducing some of the circumstances leading to arrests. Already, shelters in Ventura, San Mateo and Placer counties have closed, or plan to close, by year’s end.

A California law that took effect in 2015 is adding more pressure, requiring all state-licensed foster care facilities to develop programs to reduce their reliance on police and report every time they contact law enforcement. Tallies of those calls, while imprecise, are now posted on a state website.

San Francisco’s Youth Law Center, which pushed for the new law, has long raised concerns about Mary Graham to state officials. In January, it asked the state to shut down the shelter because of its heavy reliance on policing and other failures to properly care for children.

The California Department of Social Services rebuffed that demand, concluding that “it is not in the best interests” of children in San Joaquin County to close the shelter, and noting the number of calls to police has dropped with the population decline and improvements to staff training and mental health services. The state also has provided San Joaquin and other counties additional funds to recruit and retain more foster parents for children who would otherwise be placed in a shelter.

Youth advocates, though, said they have yet to see concrete evidence of change at Mary Graham.

In advance of an April tour of the shelter by Chronicle reporters, staff members were directed to quickly spruce up the center, including scrubbing and painting walls, putting in new window coverings, polishing surfaces and shampooing carpets.

Michael Miller, the county director whose agency oversees the shelter, said improvements to Mary Graham were budgeted a year ago and the timing of the work had nothing to do with The Chronicle’s visit. He said that many children have had positive experiences at Mary Graham and that the facility is working hard to provide even better care for children in the future.

“We are not doing business the way we did in 2015 and 2016,” Miller said.

Yet the next week, a reporter witnessed two sheriff’s deputies pinning a 10-year-old girl to the ground and forcing her into handcuffs on Mary Graham’s front lawn as a row of children watched from the shelter gate.

The girl, about 5 feet tall and wearing a red hoodie pulled over her braided hair, cried as deputies put her in the back of a patrol car.

Shelter staff had called the sheriff as the girl threw rocks at a county van while fleeing the campus. After taking her for a mental health check at an off-site clinic, deputies returned her to the shelter, where she had been for only a week.

Four hours later, another call from Mary Graham crackled over the radio: “We’re reporting a 10-year-old charged at staff with a sharp object; they’re being physically restrained,” a dispatcher relayed, and sheriff’s deputies turned toward the shelter again.

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