Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer is raising questions about dozens of foster children who walk away from group homes in the county each month and the lack of information that the county’s top elected leaders receive on the issue.
Walk-aways account for a large portion of police calls to the privately run facilities, some of which generate dozens of police visits annually, Spitzer said.
“I had no idea there were so many calls for service at some of these group homes,” Spitzer said during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “The numbers, to me, are unacceptable.”
The discussion prompted a commitment from county staff to start providing basic monthly reports to the board on walk-away incidents at group homes, which, according to the state, care for foster youth with serious emotional or behavioral problems.
Spitzer voiced his concerns just before supervisors unanimously approved a $16-million, three-year contract with unspecified group home providers.
Of around 100 children in group homes across Orange County, about 30 walk away each month, according to Michael Riley, director of the county Social Services Agency.
Spitzer also successfully pushed to change the contract to require that group home providers notify the Social Services Agency each time police are called to their facilities.
Supervisor John Moorlach sees the walk-aways as much less alarming.
“Having a juvenile walk away from a group home seems sort of ordinary to me,” said Moorlach.
The real question, he said, is: “How does Orange County compare to San Diego County or Santa Clara County? What are the number of walk-aways or AWOLs per capita?”
Supervisor Pat Bates, who used to be a social worker, said her colleagues should have a specific goal in seeking more group home information.
“I’m just not sure where we’re going with the collection of data,” said Bates. “What is that purpose? Do we want to re-enter the discussion at the state Legislature so we have some outcomes they’re required to provide?”
She suggested that supervisors hold a stakeholder meeting when the data comes in.
Spitzer criticized the state for largely tying local government’s hands when it comes to regulating where the foster care facilities are placed.
“I think the public policy that the state has kind of pushed down on us is ill-advised,” said Spitzer. “At the same time, I understand you have to have a location for these young people, because they’re some of the most difficult populations to serve.”
Riley later noted that the state has placed a moratorium on new group homes, making another one highly unlikely in Orange County anytime soon.
Spitzer, a former police officer and prosecutor, also expressed shock at the number of police calls to group homes.
He cited a group home in Orange that had 33 calls for service within a year, ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to trespassing, stealing and residents walking away.
Other group homes in Anaheim and Trabuco Canyon had 31 and 20 calls, respectively.
“If a kid walks off a facility or escapes from a facility, there’s no notification to the neighbors,” said Spitzer. “Our neighborhoods don’t get to know that there could be a dangerous situation.”
Riley said he could provide supervisors with a monthly report of group home walk-aways with an overview of the incident, its precursors and how Social Services staff followed up.
But due to confidentiality requirements under state law, Riley said, his information to supervisors could only list the juveniles’ first names and must exclude background information on them.
Spitzer said those constraints make it extremely difficult for the board to provide proper oversight.
“How do we do our job?” asked Spitzer. “Where’s the balance between our ability to get information so that we can work with you” to decide whether to punish a group home or see whether community outreach is needed?
Spitzer added that he “used to get complaints all the time” about aberrant behavior at group homes.
Riley replied that his department rarely gets complaints and that “anytime there is any kind of incident” at a group home, the operator must immediately provide Social Services with a specific incident report or SIR.
County staff, however, doesn't confirm through police logs that group homes are truly reporting every incident. Spitzer wants that to change.
“I mean, 33 calls for service at one location, that’s a lot, right?” asked Spitzer.
Riley agreed, later agreeing to audit a random sample of the county’s 36 group homes to verify whether they’ve been telling officials about every serious incident.
Riley said he found it frustrating that unlike other states, California has mostly prohibited locked facilities for foster children. Officials can’t stop foster youths from walking away from group homes unless they pose a risk to themselves or others, Riley said. By law, all staff can do is “watch them walk away.”
Concerns about foster care facilities aren’t limited just to Orange County. This week’s discussion came as Los Angeles County supervisors face growing pressure over using a group home provider accused of financial mismanagement and abuse.