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Special Report: Madera County Shows How to Responsibly Care for Children in CPS Custody
Liz-Juarez
By Liz Juarez
Published 3 years ago on
October 27, 2021

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A state law passed in 2017, while well-intentioned, has left Fresno and other counties struggling to find proper housing and care for troubled teens under CPS custody.

However, officials in Kings and Madera counties say that children are always kept in clean and safe surroundings with fully stocked refrigerators.

The subject arose after a report by the Fresno Bee earlier this month revealed that minors under Fresno County’s care were sleeping on thin yoga mats and lacked proper sanitation options.

In contrast, a newly built facility in Madera County demonstrates the best practices in short-term housing for troubled youth.

This is the children’s play area at Madera County’s new Department of Social Services facility. (GV Wire/Liz Juarez)

AB 403 Limits Where Youth Can Stay 

In January of 2015, a report by California’s Department of Social Services recommended legislative action through the Continuum of Care Reform.

The changes were signed into law through AB 403. It recommends that if at all possible children under CPS custody should be placed with a responsible relative, a non-related extended family member, or a licensed foster family.

“However, (AB 403) was designed for the majority and has left a small group of kids without immediate solutions. This is why innovation, collaboration with the state and community organizations, and stakeholder feedback become crucial.” — Fresno County spokeswoman Sonja Dosti

However, as counties across the central San Joaquin Valley struggle in finding placements for troubled youth after an emergency removal, the CCR allows minors to be placed in a short-term residential treatment program (STRTPs) providing high-quality, intensive therapeutic intervention services.

“Continued reliance on county shelters solely due to a lack of available home-based placement options or due to a lack of appropriate therapeutic level residential placements able to meet the needs of youth is inconsistent with the intent and principles of CCR,” the report said.

Sonja Dosti, the public information officer for Fresno County, said that the CCR has left some gaps but is in the best interest of children.

“However, it was designed for the majority and has left a small group of kids without immediate solutions,” said Dosti. “This is why innovation, collaboration with the state and community organizations, and stakeholder feedback become crucial.”

Removal of Group Home Shelters Hurts Counties

Danny Morris, deputy director for Madera County’s Department of Social Services says that since the state decided to phase out shelters, teenagers with behavioral challenges can be hard to place.

Morris, a former Fresno County social worker, says he attends quarterly meetings with other counties to discuss their challenges.

“I was asking what their strategies were and how they can assist us in finding homes for teenagers,” Morris said. “They shared that they were struggling in the same way that we were in locating families that are willing to take teens.”

There are only seven counties left in the state that have group home shelters where youth can stay if a placement isn’t available. Those nearest to Fresno are in Kern County and San Joaquin counties.

Morris says STRTPs usually don’t stay open past 5 p.m. on weekdays nor are they open on the weekends.

The deputy director for Kings County Child Welfare Services, Monica Connor, says they also struggle to find placement for youth. But, Kings County hasn’t needed to hold minors in their office for longer than 24 hours in the last year.

“We also have partnerships with our foster parents, and at times we can call and a kid can spend the night for the short term like take a shower or eat while we’re searching for placement,” said Connor. “I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy to find a place for our more challenging youth — the placement is hard to find.”

Connor says keeping a partnership like this going is what has made it easier for them to find more beneficial placements. On the rare occasions where a minor may have to stay a few hours in the middle of the night, the county has plenty of cots and a fully stocked fridge with healthy food options.

Madera County’s DSS facility has a room packed with donations of clothes, shoes, and toys for youth staying there. (GV Wire/Liz Juarez)

How Does Fresno County’s DSS Program Fare Among Other Valley Counties?

Since passage of the state law, Fresno County has had a harder time finding placements for troubled youth while offering fewer resources to minors in their care, critics say.

“I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy to find a place for our more challenging youth — the placement is hard to find.” — Monica Connor, deputy director, Kings County Child Welfare Services

Other counties rarely have minors stay longer than eight to 24 hours. But, in Fresno County, minors are often held for days and on weekends, says Fresno County veteran social worker Lorraine Ramirez.

Ramirez, along with other Fresno County social workers, held a protest on Oct. 14 providing testimonials, photographs, and stories from the front lines. And, they demanded solutions for what they described as a “crisis.”

Children staying in the Child Welfare Services Office on L Street in downtown Fresno — the main hub for Fresno County’s Child Protective Services — have since been moved to a temporary facility — the former University Medical Center campus near the Fresno fairgrounds.

There, they are provided with proper sleeping arrangements and fully stocked food options while they await long-term care options and placement, county officials say.

This scene at the Oct. 14, 2021, protest depicts harsh living conditions for youth held by Fresno County CPS. (GV Wire/Johnny Soto)

Clovis Building Will Offer Similar Services to Madera County’s New Facility

In Madera County, with a newly finished DSS facility, there are more resources for youth in emergency CPS custody than is typically seen in the Valley.

Youth held there have a shower, a washer and dryer for clean clothes, a closet full of donated clothes, shoes, and toys; and rooms for younger children to read and play in. There’s also a big play area outside.

For older teens, the facility offers a room with computers to finish their homework,  as well as sleeping bags and a stocked fridge with snacks in case they stay the night.

For social workers, the facility offers a therapeutic resting room with dimly lit lights and massage chairs.

The CWS facility in Clovis set to open in late November may provide many of the same amenities and services.

However, Morris says that much of the state and county funding for these new facilities doesn’t address where to place youth dealing with mental health issues. There are few mental health facilities or beds available across the state, he said.

But there is some help in the pipeline. Universal Health Services has partnered with Valley Children’s Healthcare to build a behavioral health facility scheduled to open in 2023. And, a subsidiary of UHS,  HealthLinkNow, now has a telepsychiatry service pilot at one of Valley Children’s primary care practices in Fresno.

Tour The Lisa Project In Madera County

Among the resources at Madera County’s DSS building is the interactive “Lisa Project” which offers visitors a multi-sensory exhibit depicting the realities for abused children.

The Lisa Project is an interactive exhibit depicting the real stories of children under abuse. (GV Wire/Liz Juarez)

Visitors step into a booth, put on headphones, and walk through different rooms while they hear stories of abused children and teens.

The rooms are sometimes messy, others clean and organized, but the stories often reveal forms of abuse that aren’t easily spotted.

To sign up for a tour, visit the Madera County Department of Social Services or purchase tickets here. 

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