Last week, upon hearing about the gang rape of an 11-year-old and the other myriad of problems at the local facility – we called for heads to roll. The California Department of Social Services has not disappointed.
In a remarkable complaint filed against the facility, they called for the FamiliesFirst facility in Davis to be shut down and they have effectively sought to ban the Clinical Director Audrie Meyer and Regional Executive Director Gordon Hamilton from working in this sector ever again.
There are a lot of questions that still must be addressed here, and the accused have the right to contest this complaint and have vowed to do exactly that, but the question we must ask is how our most vulnerable children were not properly safeguarded by the facility that was acting as their de facto guardian, and by the public agencies that were supposed to monitor that facility.
As we reported last week, Davis police officials told the Vanguard that the situation at the facility changed in the past few months to create a series of problems that had not existed previously at the facility.
Given that the matter is still an active investigation, Davis Police Captain Darren Pytel was reluctant to get into too much in the way of specifics.
However, he told the Vanguard that the number of “AWOL” reports started increasing about a year ago.
“We assigned a supervisor to work with FamiliesFirst at that time. Things kept getting worse,” Captain Pytel told the Vanguard. “About 4 to 5 months ago there was a clear change in how FamiliesFirst started dealing with many different types of incidents.”
In their press release they indicated, “The police department met with Families First staff and management on multiple occasions in order to come up with ways to reduce the incidents and to ensure the minors were being properly supervised. Despite efforts, minors were routinely leaving the facility.”
The question is, what changed to create a situation that was not a problem previously to become a problem?
EMQ FamiliesFirst CEO Darrell Evora spoke to the press last weekend, and while he mainly attempted to defend his organization, he seemed to acknowledge a change in policy when he said that they “changed their program model to restrain kids less last year, making it easier for them to potentially escape.”
“I knew the running behavior had increased; but, again, we thought that would go down in time as staff used alternative methods,” he told News 13 in Sacramento.
However, budgetary decisions, possibly handed down from the top, play a huge role here. Many familiar with the situation argue that things began to change when EMQ took over the operations and began to look at ways to save money.
Under old staffing arrangements, FamiliesFirst had specially designated staff who were able to monitor the kids not only in the facility, but also to be able to accompany them out into the community when they left the facility – even when they did so going AWOL.
Budget cuts would impact the number and effectiveness of this team.
The second problem is that, prior to this year, the program relied on a number of part-time workers who were essentially on call to be able to fill in when there was a sickness or when full-time staff took vacation.
At a stressful facility of this sort, there is a high rate of illness and down time needed. That was previously backfilled through the part-time staff who would enable the facility to maintain compliance with state regulations on staffing, which require one adult for every three children.
However, in January about 30 people were laid off and not replaced. That means that there is often not sufficient staff to properly supervise the children.
While FamiliesFirst may have changed their restraint policy, that may have been necessitated not by best practices but by the necessity of staffing.
Current state law, as we laid out previously, prevents a Level 14 facility from restraining a minor in the sense of either locking them up or holding them down.
However, if the minor poses an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others, the staff can use physical restraint, but only if it’s done according to their state-approved restraint plan.
FamiliesFIrst, we are told, has a state-approved plan, and they have received training on what to do for a wide variety of circumstances to prevent the need for restraint, and to keep a minor on campus, or least under constant observation at all times if they leave campus.
However, that is where the staffing ratio comes into play.
The problem is that the facility has left themselves so short-staffed that they did not have enough staff to restrain a child.
For safety reasons, at least two staffers are required to restrain the child – otherwise the situation poses too much of a threat to the safety of both the child and the staff person.
So while FamiliesFirst claims that they made a decision to change their restraint policy, the reality is that they simply had too few staff at critical times to be able to properly restrain.
Instead, what we learned is that they simply allowed the children to leave and then relied on the police to pick them up and return them to the facility.
The problem escalated as the children quickly learned that no one was able to control them. They learned that they could simply walk off campus and that no one would be able to follow them until and unless the police picked them.
Both the police records and the complaint filed by CDSS shows that this happened, but in the meantime children were assaulted physically, often sexually assaulted, and it put the community at risk.
The question is, where are the authorities on this? The police were the ones that were the canary in the coal mine – it was they who were receiving increasing numbers of reports not only about AWOL kids, but kids involved in assaults and sexual assaults.
Captain Pytel told the Vanguard, “The State was involved then over ‘personal rights’ issues. This is when things clearly started escalating” in terms of police involvement.
Captain Pytel goes on to note, “By the time the rape occurred it became more clear the way this was being handled, and the State’s process for citing the facility was not changing the situation.”
State regulators cited the facility for not having sufficient staff to adequately supervise the children.
At some point, the police recognized that they had done what they could do behind the scenes, attempting to get FamiliesFirst to respond to concerns and get the state to get involved.
As Captain Pytel told the Vanguard, “We felt we needed to greatly increase our involvement to rapidly change a situation we did not feel was conducive to a safe environment for the youth. Our greatly increased involvement at that point just kept leading to issue after issue, which is what we have been reporting on over the last two weeks.”
Ironically, the police got a break of sorts when the rape occurred, because it finally forced the issue into the public and the state apparently belatedly recognized that they had to get involved.
But over a several-month period the damage was done, as kids were not protected by the facility that was supposed to protect them. They put those kids in harm’s way and the state failed to exercise their oversight authority until, in many ways, it was too late.
As many have noted, this is an unfortunate situation. FamiliesFirst was a top notch, model facility and all of their good work was unfortunately undermined and undone by decisions made at the top to cut costs at the expense of the core mission.
—David M. Greenwald reporting