The Yolo County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to continue housing a smaller number of undocumented, unaccompanied youths sent to the county by the federal government, over the recommendation of the Chief Probation Officer, who had wanted to terminate the controversial agreement.
For about 10 years, the county has housed up to 24 youths from the Office of Refugee Resettlement in its secure juvenile detention facility, taking in youths accused of being gang members and committing crimes. After facing a lawsuit last year over allegations that there was no evidence some youths in the facility had gang ties, Chief Probation Officer Brent Cardall asked the board to terminate the contract.
In addition to legal issues, Cardall said the youths sent to his facility in the last couple of years have been more mentally ill, highly traumatized and aggressive, resulting in a sharp increase in assaults on staff.
He said he has received no response to requests for more support from the federal government, which did not have a representative at Tuesday's meeting.
"I'm very disappointed with the federal government. They are not a good partner," Cardall said. "They have not been receptive to our requests."
After hearing from members of the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network, who visit ORR youths weekly, the board directed Cardall to work with the federal government to reduce the number of beds supported by the grant to 16, which would allow increased supervision and counseling for the same amount of money. The contract currently pays out $9 million over three years. The board voted 3-1 with one member recused.
The Yolo County juvenile detention facility is one of only three secure placement facilities with ORR contracts in the country. One of the others, in Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, is facing complaints over inhumane treatment of undocumented youths.
ORR youths are now three times as likely as Yolo County youths to assault staff members, Cardall said. The situation has become so difficult that 36 staff members took sick leave or mental health days in December 2017, which he attributed to injuries or exhaustion from supervising ORR youths.
"Staff have been punched in the face, back of the head," Cardall told the board. "They've been kicked in the chest, face and back of the head. They have been bitten, spit upon, head-butted, gassed with unknown liquids – which you can imagine what that would be – and many other forms of assault."
When a staff member wants to press charges for an assault, those charges are filed with the Yolo Superior Court and the youth becomes a Yolo County youth instead of an ORR youth, leaving the county financially responsible for the child's detention and care.
With similarly difficult youths from within Yolo County, the probation department can send them to a state Department of Juvenile Justice facility, Cardall said.
The YIIN members countered Cardall's narrative, saying they hadn't witnessed any violent outbursts from any of the ORR youths they see each week. They said Yolo County can provide better care for the kids than they're likely to receive anywhere else and asked the board to not "discard" them. The Sacramento/San Francisco region also has a high concentration of immigration attorneys who advocate on behalf of the youths, members said.
"I think it's up to us because we have taken these kids on – not only the facility but the community – and we're trying to do good by these kids," said YIIN President Ramon Urbano. "These children have come through some traumatic experiences coming from their home countries, coming through Mexico, arriving here, picked up and put in our facility where they are locked up basically. No one wants to use that word, but it's the truth."
Cardall said while he greatly appreciates all of the work the more than 100 volunteers do at the juvenile facility, they don't see everything.
"It's kind of like your neighbor. You only see a certain part of your neighbor," Cardall said after the meeting. 'You don't see what goes on in their house."
Supervisor Matt Rexroad voted against changing the contract, saying that the care of the ORR youths is beyond the scope of Yolo County's core duties. If the program has become a burden rather than a benefit to the juvenile facility and the county's finances, it should be terminated, he said.
Supervisor Jim Provenza said he had been prepared to vote to terminate the contract, but after listening to the volunteers he saw the potential for the county to continue to help the kids.
"Frankly, if this contract came to me today, I would say absolutely not, we're not getting into this. But the fact of the matter is that we are into it," Provenza said. "But given the potential to do good and the good that we've been doing … I would like to give that a try, at the lower number (of ORR youths)."
Bee staff writer Anita Chabria contributed to this report.
Ellen Garrison: (916) 321-1920, @EllenGarrison