Sunday Commentary: We Have Failed to Protect Our Most Vulnerable in FamiliesFirst Fiasco

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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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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21 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: We Have Failed to Protect Our Most Vulnerable in FamiliesFirst Fiasco”

  1. JimmysDaughter

    Good article. I wonder what the salary scales are for the top managers, compared to the staff that directly deals with these kids. I wonder why they couldn’t afford to pay a few more salaries and hire a few more people at $12 or $15 an hour (I’m guessing) to prevent children from being raped.

  2. Frankly

    ALthough I don’t have any problem with the points and direction of this article, I am a bit perplexed as to the lacking point that the perps that raped this 11 year old are the actual source of the problem. You can hire an army of supervisors, but if there are people out there thinking that rape is acceptable, and that doing it to an 11 year old girl is acceptable, then it would seem that the source of the solution here is to root out those people and put them in a different facility far away from civilization and run much differently.

  3. JustSaying

    What a shame. A facility with such a long history of protecting and helping kids with mental health issues collapsed so badly and ends in deserved disgrace.

    This is the same outfit that handles our foster child and adoption programs for Yolo County and many others. Hope someone is looking into whether they’ve failed there as well.

    This is a pretty classic case of privatization of a traditionally government function, followed by the profit-oriented operation then co-opting the government agencies left to oversee the function.

    This belated action shouldn’t cover the state’s butt. Heads should roll at California’s Dept. of Social Services as well. Although the Davis police didn’t provide specifics to the public, they certainly rang the alarm bells to FF and CDSS that should have brought corrective action many months ago.

  4. medwoman

    [quote]then it would seem that the source of the solution here is to root out those people and put them in a different facility[/quote]

    It would appear that this much of your solution has been done. I would question how you would enact this plan prospectively. How do you feel that these individuals could reliably be identified prior to the actual commission of the crime ?

  5. Frankly

    [i]This is a pretty classic case of privatization of a traditionally government function, followed by the profit-oriented operation then co-opting the government agencies left to oversee the function.[/i]

    J.S., Sure, no government-run social services program or department has ever screwed up protecting the children in their care.

    I think your alaysis as to the cause is incomplete and faulty. It is highly likely that government regulations and lack of oversight contributed to this. For example, let’s say that the program managers knew that these kids were trouble but were precluded from booting them from the facility. I don’t think we know enough to make the claim that it was just profit motive at the root of cause, or even contruting to cause. Profit motive can certainly influence any organization to run lean, but then there is that thing called self-preservation motivating the organization to perform. Unlike government-run service, contracts to private service providers can be terminated for cause and the private company would lose the business. But government is perpetual. And as we see with the Obama administration it does not have to hold itself accountable for mistakes that result in harm and death.

  6. jake wallace

    The article clarifies that the Davis PD was actively “working” with FF, this is exactly the type of support that any agency in duress would need. However, FF ignored this resource along with their binding state licensed program statement, training and reporting requirements. There are no excuses that explain the organization’s decision to reduce staff to “save” money.

    FF option to defacto hire the Davis PD as childcare workers to oversee their charges was a financial decision; the interests of the youth & community were secondary. FF opted to run the highest level (14) program knowing that these are the most challenged of the herd. There are no acceptable excuses regardless of whether FF restrains or does not restrain.

    A level fourteen requires intense staffing, qualified and educated staff that are invested in the youth’s wellbeing and can collectively implement the treatment program. Since it is clear that the organizational culture was “profit” driven the message to the staff and youth would have been pretty damaging. I will bet the “problems” at FF have been festering for years.

    Each youth represents over $110k of funding annually; with line staff wages at $10-$11 an hour. Do the math, when FF talks of “saving” it is likely doublespeak – “profit” so where is the $$$? A pool of part time employee’s is a poor emergency staffing option for an RCL 14. As cited prior, FF received a 33% in RCL funding in Dec 2009. If they cannot operate with said funding they should have closed themselves down.

    The agency’s board of director’s is responsible for hiring and evaluating the clinical administrator and executive director and the board’s gross failure to “direct” the agency over the past year is abundantly clear. Who was “profiting” at FF, surely not the youth? FF board minutes, program and financial audits need to be forensically audited. Where there’s smoke….

    Which begs the question; where were the placing juvenile judges, probation and social services personnel that should have also been monitoring their youth at FF? Loco parentis— juvenile judges who place these youth need to visit these facilities once in awhile. Why were judges and counties placing youth in this atrocious milieu and how come no youth appeared to have been removed for their safety before the rapes?

    There’s plenty of blame to go around.

    Why can’t we just admit that these are “throw-away” youth, that are used as ATM cards and that only when a rape or death takes place that responsible parties appear. We operate in crisis mode ignoring all the prior red flags. There is a long tired history of California’s failure, now demonstrated through FF, that are still operating until the next rape or death takes place.

  7. B. Nice

    [quote]You can hire an army of supervisors, but if there are people out there thinking that rape is acceptable, and that doing it to an 11 year old girl is acceptable, then it would seem that the source of the solution here is to root out those people [/quote]M

    Maybe we should also try and root out the reasons why 13-14 year old boys think it’s acceptable to rape an 11 year old girl, and work on those issues too. It seems a better long term fix.

  8. Frankly

    jake wallace, California has a long history of government run child-protective service screwing up and entire families get wiped out by some angry husband/father or other relative. They have also failed to prevent child preditors from doing serious harm to children.

    Do you think FF was motivated to screw up? Profit motive includes an expectation of sustainability of that profit.

    You are others are drawing the typical conslusion to push an agenda of “evil” profit. There are plenty of mistakes to go around for both models: private and public. At least for a private model, the idiots making the mistakes can be terminated.

  9. Anonymous Pundit

    The lesson here is that involving the public works, and excluding the public (to rely on bureaucrats) does not. The alleged abuse at Families First is no different from the actual abuse regularly dispensed by the Family Court.

  10. davehart

    Jake Wallace has it right: the responsibility is squarely on the shoulders of the EMQ Board of Directors for allowing a faulty policy to go forward OR for not monitoring their management. EMQ Families First, Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) for tax purposes. Cutting expenses on staff is the only way they can live within budget. The situation can not be pegged on “bad kids”, only on poor or inadequate supervision. Human history shows that group psychology and group behavior can spiral out of control whether it’s at a group home, a prison, or a nation when personal responsibility and accountability are absent. So, if cutting expenses (staff) was necessary, EMQ FF should have taken the only responsible course of action and closed down each and every facility it cannot run safely.

  11. eagle eye

    When exactly did the Davis P.D. file its first and subsequent complaints with DSS community care licensing?

    It’s stated above that each child at FF brings in $110,000 per year, i.e., more than $9000 per month. I wonder whether that figure is accurate. If it is, we’d expect far more staff, and more qualified staff.

    CPS social workers from the various counties who have placed children at
    FF should see the children far more often, but in my experience the counties don’t want to pay the cost of travel for their social workers to check on the welfare of the children placed in facilities some distance away. Children may be seen only once or twice a year, at most.

    It’s important to understand that children placed anywhere are vulnerable to abuse. Lots of terrible things go on for years in foster homes until eventually one brave child speaks up.

    David: Is it correct that EMQ handles foster care and adoption for Yolo County?

  12. JustSaying

    Sorry for the poor information. The FamiliesFirst website lists “Foster Care and Adoption Services (FCAS)” as one of their services in Yolo County and refers to court orders regarding placement. I probably read more into their lists of services and locations than it deserves. I presume you know that FF in not involved in foster care or adoption in our county in any way, Matt. Thanks for correcting my mistaken impression. And to eagle eye for having, well, an eagle eye.

  13. Mark West

    The services that Families First offers is a form of Foster Care, but it is not accurate to suggest that they are involved or otherwise ‘handle’ Foster Care and Adoption for the County.

    Information on Foster Care licensing and training in Yolo County may be found here: [url]http://www.yolofostercare.com/[/url]

    Foster Care placements are handled by the County through the Yolo County Department of Social Service-Child Welfare Services [url]http://www.yolocounty.org/index.aspx?page=550[/url].

    Adoptions from Foster Care are handled through the California Department of Social Services – Adoption Support Unit [url]http://www.dss.cahwnet.gov/cdssweb/PG89.htm[/url]

  14. JimmysDaughter

    Medwoman, Your question to Frankly is very interesting. Before the crime is committed, are there red flags? Is there a way to notice when either sex has a tendency towards committing the act of sexual assault on a minor? Or even an adult? Maybe a therapist out there could enlighten us.

    Davehart, “The situation can not be pegged on “bad kids”, only on poor or inadequate supervision.”
    Unsupervised kids who know right from wrong & that do not succumb to peer pressure will probably not commit rape unless they are mentally suffering.

    “jake wallace, California has a long history of government run child-protective service screwing up and entire families get wiped out by some angry husband/father or other relative. They have also failed to prevent child preditors from doing serious harm to children.”

    Frankly, I agree with you. And I agree with BNice.

  15. B. Nice

    [quote]JimmysDaughter
    Unsupervised kids who know right from wrong & that do not succumb to peer pressure will probably not commit rape unless they are mentally suffering.
    [/quote]

    This made me rethink my use of the word acceptable in my above comment, after re-reading it my first instinct was to write “of coarse the know that rape is not just unacceptable but is in fact a heinous crime”, but maybe my assumption that they know this is wrong?

    While the age of the perpetrators does not make the crime any less horrific or less terrorizing for the victim, I’ve been wondering (not rhetorically), are a 13 and 14 year olds motives for rape any different from an adults who grew up in similar circumstances, if not what is the distinction (again this is not a rhetorical question)? What events in these boys short lives have turned them into rapist at 13 and 14. Are they different from the event that turn 18 or19 year old into rapists?

    I realize that the word “turn” implies that these boys or adult had no choice, that they too are victims, thus absolving them of personal responsibility, while I do not believe this is not entirely true, I’m left to wonder. While my gut tells me that this is more true for the 13 year and 14 year olds, that indeed they are not as responsible for their actions as an adult, but then I think of the 11 year old girl and I again just feel sick.

  16. davehart

    JimmysDaughter: unsupervised kids who know right from wrong and don’t submit to peer pressure are not typically the kind of kids who end up in group homes. 13 and 14 year olds are, by definition and legally, not responsible. Even kids who know the difference between right and wrong are not immune to peer pressure or making stupid or bad choices. All the more reason why the responsibility for safety of the kids is squarely on the organization.

  17. Frankly

    [i]How do you feel that these individuals could reliably be identified prior to the actual commission of the crime?[/i]

    I don’t because I don’t know these individuals. However, it many cases, and probably in most cases, a case worker will know which kids have the most severe behavior problems and that pose the greatest risks to others and themselves.

    medwoman, I have a question. I was relaying this story to someone in another town and got a curious comment that girls were reaching sexual maturity much earlier than they used to. I did a bit of web searching and there are articles saying that both boys and girls are hitting puberty earlier. Is this true?

    I’m not asking this to an any way diminish the crime of rape. My question has more to do with the need to separate and supervise children at a younger age. Frankly, I don’t know that I would have worried about a standard 11-year old and 13-year old, or even a 14-year old hanging together. Of course it would depend on the kids.

    One more general comment… recently at a get-together with some close friends and their children at our house, the younger girls (ages 15-23) showed their moms how they danced these days, and what music they danced to. My wife is still traumatized by the display six-months later. She played me a song that one of the girls downloaded to my wife’s iPhone, and there is little of the lyrics that I could repeat here.

    These are good girls. Good students that play sports and have jobs. The 23-year old just got accepted into a teaching program after achieving her undergraduate degree.

    I think we need to pay attention to this stuff. It is not innocent Elvis hip shaking. These kids are actually engaged in foreplay on the dance floor… and sometimes even more. I think we will have more unfortunate occurrences as these young kids are exposed to this extreme sexuality in pop culture.

  18. David M. Greenwald

    “David: Is it correct that EMQ handles foster care and adoption for Yolo County?”

    This was addressed, the but the Yolo Kinship Kinship Care Education Program and the licensing is all done through the county and the CPS department. When we adopted our daughter, we went through that program.

    The second point I wanted to address with the sexual assault. Among the things I was told that first, a lot of these kids were sexually abused themselves at young ages, that not only sexualizes them but leads to them acting out inappropriately. The other thing that happened is that a few years ago the facility went from all boys to co-ed and that introduced a number of new problems, but apparently even before this there was a lot of inappropriate sexual activity just because of the nature of the kids being brought in. That’s part of why you need the appropriate level of supervision as they try to reprogram (for lack of a better word) these traumatized and stigmatized kids.

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