Violations amid strict rules

Published: Sunday, Jun. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Jun. 30, 2013 - 12:23 pm

The Davis group home whose youth residents allegedly committed a rape and other crimes was supposed to shadow children or call police when they ran away, according to new documents obtained by The Bee.

Yet state regulators say a lack of supervision enabled residents to commit serious crimes in the city. The children were not supervised at the time of the alleged rape the weekend of June 1-2, according to Davis police.

A program statement that EMQ FamiliesFirst filed in 2008 with the California Department of Social Services details runaway procedures and sheds light on the daily regimen of residents, who range in age from 6 to 14 years old.

"FamiliesFirst, Inc. staff are responsible to know each child's treatment plan and whether or not that child would be in danger if out of supervision," the statement said.

State regulators are trying to close the Davis group home, alleging that staff failed to provide enough supervision. EMQ FamiliesFirst has appealed, arguing that its staff has little authority to restrain youths and that the company bears no responsibility once residents leave the campus.

The runaway plan shows that the group home could have used a number of measures to prevent children from going AWOL, including verbal interventions, restraints and supervision. Davis police documented more than 100 cases of runaways from the home in the past six months.

Life at the home is supposed to be very structured, the documents show, with breakfast served between 7:20 and 7:40 a.m., followed by school. In the afternoon, children are to complete chores and work. Between 7:45 and 9 p.m., residents are to participate in "quiet evening activities," including board games, reading and watching television.

Fifteen residents remain at the group home, down from 63 when DSS began investigating the facility after numerous sexual assault allegations involving residents emerged. The home is licensed to serve 72.

Various county welfare departments placed most of the children at the Davis home, but they have been quick to remove them in the wake of the controversies. Sacramento, Placer and Fresno counties pulled a total of seven youths within a week of the allegations. At its peak, the facility hosted youths from 25 counties.

"This caught everyone a bit off guard. Historically, the level of satisfaction with FamiliesFirst has been good," said Richard Knecht, director of children's services at the Placer County Department of Health and Human Services.

The state investigation began after two boys, ages 13 and 14, were arrested June 5 on suspicion of raping an 11-year-old girl at a nearby park. All three children lived at the facility and were unsupervised at the time.

DSS moved to revoke the home's license June 13, citing numerous examples of illegal activity allegedly committed by minors off campus.

But in an appeal, EMQ FamiliesFirst attorney Linda Randlett Kollar denied responsibility precisely because the alleged acts did not take place at the facility.

Kollar, a former Los Angeles County social worker, also blasted DSS for "an arbitrary and discriminatory application of regulations and laws" in violation of the U.S. and California constitutions.

DSS spokesman Michael Weston declined comment because of the pending litigation. A state administrative court judge will hear the case within 90 days.

The typical resident arrives at a group home after being removed from his or her family by Child Protective Services, often because of abuse and neglect. Every effort is made to retain children in traditional foster homes or in the care of other relatives, officials say.

But sometimes that's not possible because the child has a set of behavioral problems that require around-the-clock care.

"Group homes are a last resort. They are not ideal places for young people to grow up," Knecht said.

Other residents have had prior run-ins with the law or suffer from mental health issues.

"It's hard to provide services to children with such a wide range of needs," said Emily Meehan, a former counselor at EMQ FamiliesFirst Davis.

Group homes employ a wide range of professionals to treat children, including psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. The program documents for EMQ FamiliesFirst describe the target clientele as "severely emotionally disturbed children," noting that all of them are expected to receive "on-going mental health treatment."

"This is a place for children who have been rejected from society," Meehan said. "It's not a happy place."

Advocates say group homes remain necessary in California.

"Some kids cannot be treated in a family setting," said Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services. "If group homes close, children would be sent out of state or locked in juvenile halls."

Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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