Suppose, hypothetically, we are able to start all over again and create a child welfare system from scratch.
At a meeting to figure out how to do this someone says: “I have a great idea! Let’s take young people who have suffered severe trauma, either because they’ve really been abused or because they were needlessly taken away from everyone they know and love, and put them all together in one place! Let’s do this right at the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure! It would work especially well for youth who are victims of sex trafficking! What could possibly go wrong?”
Odds are anyone proposing such a harebrained scheme would be laughed out of the meeting.
But that is exactly what we do now. Call them group homes, or residential treatment centers or orphanages, or shelters, it’s all pretty much the same. And in a field where there is very little consensus, there is widespread agreement on one point: “Congregate care” is almost always the worst option for children and youth. It’s not just that the places have an alarming tendency to turn into hellholes. It’s also that the very concept of congregate care is a failure.
So, why do we keep doing it? Because over more than a hundred years a great big, powerful group home industry has grown up to run them. And they don’t take kindly to anything that would even slightly curb their power. This was well-documented this year by the San Francisco Chronicle in its brilliant expose of how advocates for one of the worst forms of institution, parking place shelters, defeated reform efforts.
Most recently, the group home industry has found a new “market” to exploit – or perhaps the correct term is re-exploit: young people who have been victims of sex trafficking. The industry got a last-minute amendment added to federal legislation that would have slightly curbed the use of congregate care to exempt this population from the restrictions (the entire bill ultimately failed). But sexually trafficked youth are among those likely to suffer most from institutionalization.
The group home industry’s best friend
During all of this the group home industry has had a reliable ally – a so-called news website that’s always ready to stand up for the industry’s interests. I’m speaking, of course, of the Fox News of child welfare – the so-called Chronicle of Social Change.
Along with promoting odious racial stereotypes, the Chronicle runs story after story bemoaning an effort by California to ever-so-slightly curb the misuse and overuse of group homes and institutions. Yes, the stories include a quote or two from a token supporter of the reforms. But that perspective is drowned out by gushy prose about a particular group home or shelter that is now at risk, and hand-wringing quotes from people who run the places and their allies.
The premise is always the same: Congregate care may not be the best option, the story admits, but there simply are not enough foster homes. Group homes and foster homes are presented as the only options. The idea that states could solve the foster home “shortage” by taking fewer children needlessly is never even mentioned.
So readers dependent on Chronicle “news” stories would never know that California tears apart families at nearly double the rate of Illinois, where independent court-appointed monitors have found that child safety improved. They would never know that Los Angeles County takes away children at well over twice the rate of New York City and more than triple the rate of metropolitan Chicago.
The latest case in point: this story, which ran under the headline: “With Group Home Reforms in California, Fears Emerge About How Sexually Trafficked Youth Will Fare.”
The focus of the story is a Santa Clara group home called The Nest. Here’s how the story begins:
After a 16-month hiatus, The Nest, a Santa Clara group home for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC), is scheduled to re-open at the end of the month.
“We can report that The Nest, our specialized residential group home program for CSEC girls is definitely NOT closed for good,” Clinical Director Renee Brown wrote in an email. “California has a serious staffing shortage,” she added, “thus the long duration to obtain persons dedicated to this very traumatized population.”
The Nest, a small six-bed residential facility, found itself short-staffed in May 2016 when two employees were let go in the wake of a series of complaints. Although The Nest is a small facility, it serves a population of kids who often require specialized services. And with two staff down, The Nest could no longer meet the needs of its youth.
“We weren’t able to deliver the kind of treatment necessary, so we took time out. The timeout was longer than we thought,” said Brown in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
Readers don’t find out what really was behind the “series of complaints” that led to the “hiatus” or “timeout” until the very bottom of the story:
Before temporarily closing, The Nest had a series of problems with staff that led the state’s licensing agency to file six investigation reports on the facility during 2016. The complaints ranged from staff calling youth derogatory names to staff being aware that clients were using drugs, going AWOL and becoming involved in sex trafficking, and one youth was pregnant. Two staff were said to be at fault and were let go, leading to the year-long search for new employees.
Other group homes get the same treatment
The Nest isn’t the only place to get this kind of sympathetic coverage from the Chronicle. Two years ago the Chronicle published a 2,000 word encomium to another California group home for the same population, this one in Redwood City. It featured gushy paragraphs like this:
The interior walls of the yellow craftsman style home … are all painted bright colors and dusted with empowering quotes; the aesthetics a small indication of the lengths to which Annie Corbett … and her staff have gone to ensure that this home is a safe place …
After all, if the walls look pretty and the quotes are “empowering” what could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, actually. Two years later the state had shut the place down, and the owner agreed never to open a group home in Redwood City again.
The Chronicle responded with still another piece sympathizing not with the home’s victims, but with the home. The headline: “Complexities of Sheltering Sexually Exploited Youth Result in Closure of San Mateo Group Home.” Before the Chronicle decided my dissenting views were unwelcome, I wrote about it here.
The Chronicle treats first-stop parking place “shelters” the same way. Just this year, the San Francisco Chronicle exposed the horrors of many such places in California. And, as with other institutions, there is strong evidence that the shelters do none of the things they claim to do and harm the children they are meant to help.
But in the Chronicle, shelter stories have headlines such as “Los Angeles to Shutter Celebrated Center for Abused Children” (which I discussed here) and “California Time Limits 30-Day Shelters for Foster Youth in Midst of ‘Epic Crisis’ in Foster Parent Recruitment.”
Contrast this to the approach of a real news source, Youth Today, which, in its heyday ran front-page stories about institutions that had crises of conscience and reformed themselves to de-emphasize congregate care – places like Youth Villages and EMQ Child and Family Services. Both stories focused on how the reformers had to fight the group home industry in order to make the changes.
The Chronicle’s extremist friends
The Chronicle cozies up to the group home industry, promotes group homes and derides safe, proven alternatives to foster care for the same reason it gives a platform to the most vile racial stereotyping: Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel is allied with the most extreme elements in the take-the-child-and-run faction of child welfare.
He’s co-authored op-eds with Elizabeth Bartholet, whose ideas are so extreme that they include requiring every family with a young child to open itself to mandatory government surveillance. (No, I’m not exaggerating. There’s a summary of her views in the section of this post called “Harvard’s resident extremist” and the details are in her own book, Nobody’s Children, pp. 170, 171).
Other Bartholet proposals, if implemented, would lead to the removal of at least two million children every year. (Again, see this post for how that figure is calculated.) When Bartholet and her allies gathered for a conference attacking efforts to keep families together (with no dissenters invited), it was Heimpel who wrote up the proceedings, in a paper called “Child Welfare’s Parental Preference.”
Heimpel also provided extensive help to Bartholet for a paper she wrote attacking differential response, a safe, proven alternative to child abuse investigations in some cases. Then he promoted Bartholet’s findings in the Chronicle. (He did disclose his role.) Then he co-authored an op-ed column attacking differential response in Massachusetts – exploiting a horror story that never involved differential response at all.
Bartholet also is a leader of the movement that insists that child welfare is magically exempt from the racial bias that permeates all other aspects of American life. Heimpel not only published but personally promoted the vicious column that dredged up a pernicious racial stereotype.
Given that agenda, one can only wonder: Just how bad does a group home or institution have to get before the Chronicle will stop doing puff pieces about it?