Editorial: Too many rights can be wrong for some kids

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

Who would not be disturbed by the basic facts surrounding EMQ FamiliesFirst, a Davis group home? Two boys, ages 13 and 14, who were housed at the facility, have been arrested on suspicion of raping an 11-year-old girl who also lived there. All three youths were runaways from the facility.

In a separate incident, a 17-year-old boy who did not live at the facility has been charged with sexually assaulting another girl who walked away from the home. Police report that the home, located on the 2100 block of Fifth Street, has had 500 calls for service this year alone and 100 reports of juveniles running away.

The reported problems justify an investigation of EMQ FamiliesFirst – already under way – and also of state Department of Social Services' oversight. But the disarray at this one Davis group home is symptomatic of a more complex set of problems surrounding how California deals with its most troubled children.

For the past decade and a half, the state has pursued a policy that rightly seeks to deinstitutionalize children. Under that policy, the number of kids in foster care has been cut in half, down from a high of 108,000 in 1999 to around 56,000 today. To the extent possible, children who are still taken from their parents because of neglect or abuse are placed with extended family members or with close and trusted friends or acquaintances – a teacher, for example, or a close family friend or a coach. The goal is to place kids in home-like settings.

Only children with the most serious issues are placed in residential facilities such as the Davis group home. Even though many of the children there have histories of running away, unless they pose an immediate danger to themselves or others, EMQ and other group home operators are barred by law from restraining them physically. In fact, if they attempt to restrain a child, a facility or an individual caregiver can be charged with violating a child's personal rights.

Longtime youth advocates think a better balance can be struck between respecting the personal rights of children and protecting them from themselves.

Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, cites two specific categories of kids who may need to be held against their will for their own safety. The first is boys or girls who have been commercially sexually exploited and may be drawn to their exploiter, usually a pimp, either emotionally or because of fear. The second category is kids who've been repeatedly traumatized and whose default defense mechanism is to bolt.

These kids may need a brief period – while in crisis – when they shouldn't be allowed to leave. No one is talking about chaining troubled kids to their beds. A secure perimeter that keeps kids from wandering away makes sense for all involved – kids and the communities around these facilities.

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