Sacramento County foster care agency must close illegal shelter, state says

He survived foster care system, now fights for foster kids

Miles Cooley was in foster care as a kid and survived with the help of a few adults. Now, he is a Los Angeles lawyer to celebrities, but returns to Sacramento to advocate for kids who are where he once was.
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Miles Cooley was in foster care as a kid and survived with the help of a few adults. Now, he is a Los Angeles lawyer to celebrities, but returns to Sacramento to advocate for kids who are where he once was.

More than a year after telling Sacramento County Child Protective Services to stop using a clerical office as a makeshift youth shelter, state officials have ordered the agency to end the illegal practice by a September deadline.

The California Department of Social Services wrote in a July letter to Sacramento County Child Protective Services that it must stop letting kids sleep at the county office on Auburn Boulevard near Watt Avenue.

The Centralized Placement Support Unit is supposed to be a quick stop where children spend a few hours before being placed into foster or group homes. The facility is not licensed to keep children for more than 24 hours, said Michael Weston, deputy director of public affairs for the state Department of Social Services.

But some children have been staying for days or even weeks – data provided by the county said at least one child has stayed at the facility for 30 days – in part because the county said it lacks other foster care options. The violations were first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle.

“It’s the office and it was never meant to be a space where youth were meant to spend more than a couple minutes,” said Brenda Dabney, director of the Sacramento Children’s Law Center, which represents the county’s 2,800 foster kids in court. “We’re really hoping they are able to create a better location.”

About 131 children come through the office each month, and about 36 percent of those remain beyond the one-day limit, according to county data.

The county facility is on the grounds of the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento, but is a separate operation.

The placement unit has two small “comfort rooms” with beds, said county spokeswoman Samantha Mott, but some advocates have described seeing children sleeping on floor mats and staying with little supervision for long periods or overnight in the lobby waiting area.

State regulators in February 2016 notified the agency’s head, Michelle Callejas, that the placement unit was operating in violation of state health and welfare codes by running the office as a shelter without a license. It gave the agency until March 5 of that year to find other placements for children currently staying at the facility.

Weston said his agency has continued to work with Sacramento County in the intervening 18 months to find alternatives, and that the recent letter was the culmination of those efforts.

Callejas was out of the office for a family emergency and not immediately available for comment Tuesday, Mott said.

Mott said the county is trying to “solidify plans to address the challenges of finding appropriate, safe and stable placements” but is “not discussing specifics publicly at this time.” She said recommendations would be presented to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors “in coming weeks.”

She said the facility is still being used for emergency placements but did not say how many children are currently staying there.

Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli said the county has been working with the state for months to find a solution to a situation that all sides find objectionable.

“If it were simple to fix, that would have been done a long time ago,” he said. “There’s a good deal of urgency to this for any number of reasons ... just having children in the lobby for extended periods of time is just not acceptable.”

Many of the children who stayed at the intake office were classified as “high needs” kids with health, mental health or behavioral issues that can make it hard to find a placement, said Dabney.

“In Sacramento County, these youth present with trauma that manifests as aggressive or assaultive behaviors, substance use or chronic running away,” the state letter reads. Some also are victims of commercial sexual abuse and need services beyond typical foster care placements, Dabney said.

A lack of placements isn’t the agency’s only problem.

Sacramento’s Child Protective Services has struggled to retain social workers because they face massive caseloads and have too little time to adequately deal with individual children.

From July 1, 2015, through May 31, 2016, CPS hired 106 social workers. In that same period, 83 social workers left the department, said Dr. Sherri Heller, head of the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services. Of those who left, the department believes 56 resigned or transferred specifically due to working conditions, and exit interviews showed employees were overwhelmed by the workload or felt they received insufficient support.

The Centralized Placement Unit has been troubled for years. The unit began after an investigation by The Sacramento Bee documented problems with the CPS agency that contributed to the death of at least four children in its care – including high staff turnover.

As far back as 2010, a year after the unit began operating, a Sacramento County Grand Jury report found that it didn’t have the office space to accommodate enough staff to handle its caseload, and might lack the budget to hire enough staff to meet the demand of placing kids.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa