Some of the most vulnerable children in California have been forced into living conditions that threaten their health and safety.
An NBC Bay Area investigation reveals dreadful violations at some of California’s group homes, which are 24-hour child care facilities that house abused and neglected children throughout the state.
California is in the midst of overhauling its child welfare system, but the reform could take years. In the meantime, the Investigative Unit found evidence of 815 violations at Bay Area group homes that posed an "immediate risk" to children and teens over the past five years.
Those violations included physical and sexual abuse of children, drug use among group home staff, and other serious violations such as a lack of food. Lawmakers in California have acknowledged that outcomes for children in group homes are substantially worse compared to outcomes for children placed with relatives or foster families. As a result, the state is now undertaking one of the largest overhauls of the child welfare system in recent history.
The effort, which has been dubbed the "continuum of care reform," aims to eliminate group homes by 2021, which currently house roughly 3,725 children and teens across California. The reform would require counties to do a significantly better job in recruiting foster families and relative caregivers for foster youth.
"When you look at the suicide rates, drug abuse rates, when you look at all the negative outcomes for the foster care population – the lack of the number of kids going into higher education, just the absolute lack of success – that’s the danger that the system puts these kids into," said Assemblymember Mark Stone, who authored AB 403, the legislation behind the continuum of care reform effort.
Stone says group homes were originally intended to be short term placements for foster youth, while social workers connected children with foster families or relatives. Counties, however, simply have not been able to recruit enough foster families or relative caregivers, which has transformed group homes into long term placements for many children.
Stone says his legislation would address these shortfalls by increasing resources for the recruitment and retention of foster families and relative caregivers. The group homes that continue to exist after the transition will become short-term facilities, which would aim to place children in longer-term homes within 6 months.
"We want to reduce the amount of suicides, we want to reduce the amount of drug abuse, we want to reduce the amount of failure that kids suffer coming out of the foster care system," Stone said. "And it’s not because they’re bad kids. It’s not because they’re not capable. It’s because they haven’t had a chance."
There are currently 166 group homes across the Bay Area that can house anywhere from four to more than 100 children. To find out what foster kids were enduring at Bay Area group homes, NBC Bay Area obtained hundreds of pages of inspection reports from the Department of Social Services.
The reports contained troubling allegations that government inspectors determined to be true. They include:
- A group home employee "sexually abused a child"
- Staff did drugs with a child
- An employee brought a "loaded gun" into a group home
- Several violations over a lack of food for children
- Failing to provide medical attention to a child "after a seizure"
- Not reporting an injury to a child that resulted in two broken bones
- An employee caught on tape "physically abusing" a child by cracking an object like a "whip"
- Using "behavior modifying drugs as punishment." After acting out, one child was given "Benadryl on at least 30 documented occasions," which can cause drowsiness
Despite the seriousness of these violations, the group homes where these violations occurred all remain open, although some are on probation, meaning their license can be revoked if they don’t show improvement in the quality of care provided to children.
NBC Bay Area requested an interview with Department of Social Services director Will Lightborne to discuss whether the state was doing enough to ensure the safety of children housed in group homes, however, the agency said their spokesperson Michael Weston was the only person available.
Weston agreed that group homes are not appropriate long-term placement options, which is why he said the Department of Social Services is supporting and implementing the continuum of care reform.
"These group homes were designed to deal with children who needed therapeutic services," Weston said. "What they’ve become for some kids, particularly at the lower level, is a permanent placement option and that is what a lot of the reform is trying to undo."
While Bay Area group homes have been cited 815 times over the past 5 years for putting the health, safety, and personal rights of children at "immediate risk," Weston said the department is doing enough to keep children in group homes safe.
"We have a system for dealing with facilities that are out of compliance and part of that is a progressive discipline process," Weston said. "And where we have facilities where children’s needs aren’t being met, we’re being very active. There’s a process that we go through."
Weston said that process includes meeting with group homes to discuss improvements, putting them on probation, or even shutting them down. Inspectors with the department’s Community Care Licensing division are required by law to conduct unannounced inspections at every group home at least once every five years. Weston says the department aims to investigate complaints against group homes within 90 days.
Weston, however, said shutting down a problematic group home can be a long process.
"The administrative process does not give the authority to the department to close a facility without doing a lot of legwork," Weston said. "[There’s] a lot of legal work in order to do that. It’s a very long process in order to investigate and close a facility from start to finish."
Records provided by the Department of Social Services show 19 group homes in California have had their licenses revoked between 2011 and 2015.
Mariah Corder, 16, spent much of her childhood in group homes after her biological father went to prison for murder. She was removed from her parents’ home as a toddler. Corder has cycled between multiple group homes and foster homes since then, and says the state should be doing more to protect children and teens.
"The purpose of a high level group home is to help a youth deal with any trauma they’ve had before," Corder said. "But I really believe that pretty much all of the group homes I was in gave me more trauma that I had to deal with."
Corder said she experienced physical abuse by staff members, and at one group home, was even given daily doses of psychotropic drugs to unnecessarily subdue her. NBC Bay Area confirmed that once she was transferred to a different group home, the staff there took her completely off the medication, saying she didn’t need it.
"I never should have been abused," Corder said. "I never should have had to fight or defend myself in a government home and never should have had to be so behind in school. I never should have had to be in a group home at all really. If there were more foster homes, I wouldn’t have."
Corder did spend some time in foster homes as a child, which she says made her realize how poor the conditions were at group home facilities.
"It took a few foster homes in between group homes to realize how different things were and a couple of really good foster homes to explain to me that the stuff that was happening to me wasn’t right," she said.
Corder says she supports the continuum of care reform, but does have some reservations about whether counties will be able to recruit enough foster parents and relative caregivers to phase out group homes as long-term placement options for foster youth.
In the meantime, Corder is fighting to change the system alongside other teens at California Youth Connection, a non-profit group that’s been advocating for child welfare reform for the past two decades.
"I think just knowing the horrible things that I went through and never wanting any other youth to have to go through that, that’s what gets me going every day," Corder said. "[It’s what] keeps me motivated to advocate for youth."