April 16, 2021

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How Sacramento’s largest group home failed its children

Why have problems at the Children’s Receiving Home festered for years? Will new reforms make a difference?

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Broken Home: How Sacramento’s largest group home failed its kids

Why have problems at the Children’s Receiving Home festered for years? Will new reforms make a difference? Read The Sacramento Bee’s investigation:


On a crisp January evening, Kendra Czekaj and a handful of other children bolted from the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento, the county’s largest group home.

They didn’t go far, just across the street to a Denny’s parking lot. Counselors, soon alerted to the departures, followed and pleaded with them to return. Instead, the children and teenagers scattered toward a busy intersection where traffic flows onto the Capital City Freeway.

That’s when a teenage girl, who appeared to be under the influence, rushed down an embankment and onto the median wall.

A few raced across the highway behind her, dodging traffic. Three of them made it to the center of the freeway. Motorists called 911 in disbelief.

Kendra stood on the shoulder of the road, just over 5-feet tall, her small frame illuminated by headlights. She could see the others atop the concrete barrier, only three lanes of traffic between them.

Kendra, just 12 years old, did not make it over alive.

What led to Kendra’s violent death on the freeway this year was not an anomaly. It followed years of warnings and failed interventions by police and state regulators to curb runaways at the Children’s Receiving Home, an investigation by The Sacramento Bee has found.

Every year, the Children’s Receiving Home takes in more than 1,300 children and teenagers from around the region. They come from broken homes and frequently grapple with deep behavioral issues. They are one of the most difficult populations to manage and treat.

Group homes and other youth shelters are supposed to be a safe haven for endangered children. But young people housed at Children’s Receiving Home go AWOL with minimal or no staff intervention. Some leave for nightmarish lives in sex trafficking.

The uncommon frequency with which regulators and police visit its sprawling campus on the edge of Sacramento makes it stand out. The group home’s managers, local police and state officials say they can do little to stop it.

The nonprofit Children’s Receiving Home is one of 20 emergency youth shelters in Sacramento County. The home — supported substantially from Sacramento County grants — can house as many as 100 children at once.

Licensing investigators have responded to at least 125 complaints and visited nearly 300 times since 2015 — more than any other group home in the state, according to data from the California Department of Social Services. Although some of the visits were routine, most were for unannounced inspections or to investigate complaints.

The Sacramento Police Department was called to the Auburn Boulevard address, on average, four times a week last year, according to calls-for-service data reviewed by The Bee. The majority of the calls were for missing person reports that are routinely filed once a child leaves the campus.

As a result of the near-constant reporting of AWOL residents, more children were listed missing in Sacramento County last year than any other place outside of Los Angeles.

Inside, former employees say, turnover is common. As of September 2019, more than one-third of the people working there had been on the job less than a full year, according to state records. Regulators have cited the home in the past for not having enough staff, making it easier for children to run away or misbehave without being noticed.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors gave the Children’s Receiving Home an additional $500,000 to hire more staff in 2016. The next year, local lawmakers doubled their funding so they could accept more children and improve supervision.

Records show the problems have continued. Some children still sleep — sometimes on the floor or couches, they said — in a separate short-term “placement unit” on the Children’s Receiving Home campus that is operated by the county.

And strikingly, children housed at the Children’s Receiving Home have been recruited into sex trafficking, a problem that has festered for years, records show. State regulators have investigated at least five allegations involving commercially sexually exploited minors who resided at the group home since 2014.

Managers at the Children’s Receiving Home point to one critical factor as they have struggled to contain their wards: It’s against the law for group homes to restrain or lock up children, said David Ballard, the Children’s Receiving Home’s chief executive officer, speaking immediately after Czekaj’s death.

“Staff are required to follow youth when they leave campus to try to persuade them to return, and CRH did so last night,” Ballard said in a statement. Ballard declined to sit for an interview with The Bee. He sent the four-page statement through a lawyer and retired in May.

“We feel a deep sense of responsibility for protecting each of our kids. However, the reality is that it’s difficult to manage their behaviors to a positive outcome every time,” Ballard said. “Our mission is to help make life right for these kids, who’ve had tough lives through no fault of their own.”

The turmoil at the Children’s Receiving Home comes as the state of California has been attempting to overhaul its foster care system. In 2017, the state began phasing out so-called congregant care facilities and group homes in favor of more services and support for foster families.

The sweeping reforms finally reached the Children’s Receiving Home at the beginning of the year. The state greenlighted the group home’s conversion to a temporary shelter care facility, a new type of license for shorter stays. They run a residential therapy program, too.

It allowed the Children’s Receiving Home to get — at least administratively — a clean bill of health. All the records detailing the numerous visits, citations and complaints under the group home license were taken off the Department of Social Services’ website — and out of public view.

Yet, children still outnumber the available foster homes in the region, slowing any progress for reform.

Meanwhile, parents and relatives whose children have entered the group home say their lives were made worse because of its inaction. Situated in a once-thriving suburban neighborhood, the group home is now near a corridor known for prostitution and drug deals.

“When you put a receiving home adjacent to major freeways, you’re asking for trouble,” said Felicia Clark, whose older daughter was paralyzed and later died after a car accident when she went AWOL from the facility. “Children are getting drugs. Children are fleeing. Nothing is being done. And it’s just business as usual at the Children’s Receiving Home.”

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Felicia Clark protests outside the Children’s Receiving Home in Sacramento in January, after Kendra Czekaj, 12, died chasing a resident that left the county’s foster care placement facility on the Auburn Boulevard campus. Clark became a frequent protester at the home after her four children were placed there. I’m standing out here for Kendra, she said. Renée C. Byer [email protected]

History of missteps

The Children’s Receiving Home was founded in 1944, operating out of a Victorian house in downtown Sacramento. Years later, the facility moved to 29th and X street — and then again in 1965 to the Auburn Boulevard campus at a time when nearby McClellan Air Force Base was still driving growth in Sacramento.

For decades, it rarely made news for anything more than a fundraiser. Typically, when a child was pulled out of some grim circumstance, news stories would note the child was taken to the home. More than 75,000 children have passed through its doors.

Ballard served as the nonprofit’s executive director for more than two decades. He arrived in the late 1990s from an adoption and foster agency in Southern California where he was the executive director.

Months into the job, he championed the construction of new dorms. The Children’s Receiving Home was turning hundreds of children away every year for lack of space.

“I’d rather not sit back and watch a system be strained,” Ballard told The Bee in 1997. “I really want to be proactive.”

Five new dorms opened in 2001, boosting its capacity by 30 beds. The county’s Centralized Placement Support Unit, tasked with finding children a place to stay, moved on-site two years later. It was the start of an uneasy relationship, former employees say.

By the mid-2000s, troubling issues began slipping out. The group home struggled to deal with runaways.

And in 2013, Theresa Gooch, a then-25-year-old counselor, was charged with two counts of oral copulation with a minor under 18; lewd and lascivious conduct; and selling or giving marijuana to a minor.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we did this story

The Children’s Receiving Home is one of Sacramento’s most important institutions. How the facility manages the children under its care reverberates throughout the community during their stay there, and well after they leave.

The Sacramento Bee is committed to thorough and detailed reporting of our public institutions to illuminate inequality, waste and abuse, and the expenditure of public funds. This story is an important part of the independent oversight that is central to local journalism.

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How we did this story

Reporters Michael Finch II and Molly Sullivan, and visual journalist Renée C. Byer, have been reporting this story since mid- 2019. (The project was put on hold for several months as the team covered COVID-19, the economic shutdown and civil unrest.)

The project included a review of thousands of pages of documents and data from the Sacramento Police Department, the Department of Social Services, Sacramento Superior Court, Sacramento County, and other sources including internal documents from the Children’s Receiving Home.

The team conducted interviews with dozens of people involved with the group home, including children who had gone AWOL and previous residents, their parents, staff members, neighbors, and state and county officials. The Bee is withholding the names of the children.

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Gooch pleaded no contest to three of the charges. Regulators cited the Children’s Receiving Home and forced it into “a mandated plan of correction.”

At the time, the group home’s administrators said Gooch was solely responsible. But Stewart Katz, a lawyer representing the underage victim in a lawsuit against the home, disagreed. He told The Bee after Gooch’s trial ended: “They’re suggesting all the blame lies with her (Gooch), which it doesn’t.”

Regulators only found out because of an inside tip.

A former Children’s Receiving Home health and wellness manager, Tina Canupp, noticed administrators had failed to report incidents that put children in danger, including the inappropriate relationship involving Gooch. She became a whistleblower and sued the Children’s Receiving Home for retaliation and wrongful termination.

While the Department of Social Services investigated, Canupp said in court records that her reports to the state contributed to a denial of health benefits, a 1% cut to her annual merit raise, and ultimately her firing in 2013. Canupp declined to comment. Court records show she settled the case in 2015.

Problems at the Children’s Receiving Home have only worsened in the years since.

Group homes are monitored by Community Care Licensing, a division of the state Department of Social Services. The licensing office sends workers to look into complaints and perform evaluations. Investigators, using the same burden of proof as in civil trials, must find more than a 50% chance a claim is true to substantiate it.

Investigators have substantiated 54 allegations at the home. The credible accusations range from inappropriate relationships with staff members to unkempt rooms and missed doses of medication.

The facility’s problems dwarf those of other group homes by a wide margin, The Bee’s analysis of state data shows.

The Children’s Receiving Home was visited by regulators 20 times more often than the state average for group homes. It was cited 18 times more often for posing an immediate risk to a child’s health, safety or personal rights.

The margin narrowed when it was compared with group homes that have more than 30 beds but the Children’s Receiving Home was still an outlier. The group home was visited five times more often than the average across the state. And the facility was cited seven times more for posing an immediate risk of danger to residents.

In January 2016, several residents fled from the Children’s Receiving Home without permission. Three staff chased behind them in a van and found two of them at a nearby convenience store who refused to come with them.

Instead, they followed the van on foot into the middle of Auburn Boulevard, according to an evaluation report. That’s when one child stepped into the street and was “scraped by an oncoming truck.”

The child was later taken by ambulance to the emergency room for “minor scratches” and released back to the group home. At first, regulators cited the Children’s Receiving Home for failing to follow its runaway plan because staff left the children behind, records show. The report was later amended to show “no deficiencies.”

Patterns of AWOL behavior

The most common concern has been children wandering off the property.

Staff members are supposed to “shadow” children any time they leave, taking notes of what they are wearing and then filing a missing person report with the police. As a result, thousands of reports have been filed over the decade, according to Sacramento Police Department data reviewed by The Bee.

Police records show they peaked in 2017 when more than 2,500 reports were filed, accounting for more than one-third of all cases in Sacramento County. During that year, another child also ran into the middle of traffic and onto the freeway after being denied privileges by staff. Records do not say if they were harmed.

Several runaway incidents were documented throughout the year. The Children’s Receiving Home launched a program, called “My Life My Choice,” a “holistic, battle-tested approach” designed to help reduce runaways through mentoring and training. By August 2017, it was clear the initiative was not working well enough.

Law enforcement was called so frequently a meeting was held to discuss, in part, the “patterns of AWOL behavior” and potential solutions. The meeting turned out officials from the Department of Social Services, the county’s Child Protective Services unit and local police.

What, if any, changes came from the conversation are unclear. Sacramento police Sgt. Bill Wann, who was present, said through a spokesman that he could not recall any of the details.

Most missing person reports submitted by the Children’s Receiving Home are faxed, records show — and they hardly slowed down after the meeting. In 2018, more than 2,000 missing person reports were filed from the facility, data show.

In May 2019, a police department lieutenant emailed a number of county officials to complain about a “dramatic increase” of calls involving children who were drinking alcohol and using drugs, among other things, including calls for suspected sexual assaults. At least 17 incidents occurred in the span of nine days, he said.

“I’ve personally been there on a couple calls, and it was chaotic,” Lt. Roman Murrietta wrote in the email that asked county officials for help.

Patrol officers have offered support but ultimately have no say in discipline and policies used inside, said Karl Chan, a public information officer for the police department.

“In regards to calls for service, we’re not treating them any differently and responding when they request us,” Chan said. “Their protocols and whatever they do with their staff and how they deal with discipline is entirely up to them.”

AWOLs have always been difficult to manage, former employees said. The courts say there is a difference between kids being held for their protection and kids being held for criminal activity.

“The bottom line is if a kid didn’t want to be there, they could leave,” said Jim Strahl, a former program director at the Children’s Receiving Home. “When they did (leave), we would have to deal with that.”

Strahl, who retired five years ago, said they enhanced training and gave staff many different options, creating different levels of supervision. It wasn’t always enough.

Once, Strahl recalled trying to stop a girl believed to be involved in the sex trade. He stood in front of a door to prevent her from leaving. She told the police Strahl was holding her against her will. Strahl said he was briefly detained in handcuffs.

Group homes have approached the runaway challenge in different ways, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents youth in Los Angeles, Placer and Sacramento counties.

Some put alarms on the doors or have a gate; others follow children and report them missing. But you can’t lock kids in because that’s against the law since they’re not in jail, Heimov said.

“Unless they’ve been found to be a danger to self or others due to mental illness or they were adjudicated a delinquent, they (the group home) cannot restrict their liberty,” Heimov said. “What we would expect is if a child was seeking to leave, the staff would work with the child to get them to stay in a therapeutically informed way that is safe. But that’s not always possible.”

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A security guard sits on a picnic table inside the fence at the Children’s Receiving Home in Sacramento in January. Renée C. Byer [email protected]

Struggle to keep staff

The problems at the Children’s Receiving Home go beyond its supervision principles. It has struggled to hire and retain residential counselors to keep an eye on children.

The state expects the group home to have one counselor for every three residents, a requirement the shelter has frequently failed to meet. Records show the extent of their failure to supervise was obvious throughout 2018 and regulators concluded they were “chronically out of ratio.”

On their watch, a child climbed on the facility’s roof undetected in May.

In June, an 8-year-old boy with autism found his way into a parked vehicle and started the ignition before running across a busy street and wandering into an apartment complex. Administrators told regulators a staff member shadowed the boy but he was too fast to catch.

Days later — on a hot evening — two children entered one of the transport vans. They were inside so long that one of them was found asleep.

After each incident, the group home was cited but the problems continued.

By September, the Children’s Receiving Home was woefully out of compliance with the terms of an agreement with the state to correct long-standing issues. The licensing office noted in a meeting with management that the facility had racked up 40 complaints since the start of the year and 10 of them had been substantiated.

On Sept. 1, the clinical director sent a memo to the staff telling them to refer all questions to top managers if approached by “outside stakeholders” — specifically, Community Care Licensing — if they did not personally witness an event. It was authored by the human resources director and distributed on the nonprofit’s payroll portal.

In a complaint investigation launched by regulators, employees said it felt they were being discouraged from reporting incidents to the state. Ballard, the CEO, told the regulators the memo was retracted and said the document was sent in error.

To satisfy a plan of correction imposed by the state that month, administrators also tracked hiring and attrition for nearly four months starting in August 2018. They hired 16 people; seven were counselors. During the same period, 33 people were either terminated or resigned — 23 were residential counselors.

The jobs barely pay more than what an associate earns working at In-N-Out — yet the responsibilities are significantly more demanding. The starting hourly wage for residential counselors at the time of the report was $11.75; other residential counselor jobs in the region paid employees $13 or $14 an hour.

“A lot of people come in thinking ‘oh yeah, I like kids.’ But these kids are spitting on them and ripping their clothes, calling them names and telling them they wish they would die,” said Strahl, the former program director.

“They don’t know how to react. It’s a tough job. You’re not paid a lot and you have bad hours.”

Path to exploitation

For years, the “no loitering” sign at the Oaks shopping center across the street from the Children’s Receiving Home did little to deter young people from congregating there. Like a magnet, it became a go-to spot for restless children who’d gone AWOL.

They hang outside and beg for money, or go into the gas station and steal, several employees who work in the shopping center told The Bee.

The strip mall is home to two massage parlors, a laundromat and a donut shop; a liquor store and two chain restaurants. Shopkeepers and law enforcement say the area is known for drug deals and prostitution.

Rustan Amin, who owns Shams, an Afghan market and bakery near the edge of the center, said children have come and stolen things; he’s had to call the police. Amin, like many others interviewed by The Bee, has also heard about young people being lured from the Children’s Receiving Home and into sex trafficking.

“It’s not even safe for kids, this place,” Amin said. “This kind of facility must be in a remote area so kids don’t have that much of an opportunity to do the wrong thing.”

Decades ago, the intersection near Auburn Boulevard and Watt Avenue was a major corridor coveted by retailers. Now car dealerships, rundown motels and other businesses call it home.

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said it’s “definitely part of the stroll” — where sex workers go to find “tricks” or “Johns.”

“Over time, it has clearly deteriorated,” McGinness said. “It’s not the area it had been at one time.”

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Felicia Clark, left, speaks to her daughter Angelica, center, outside the Children’s Receiving Home in Sacramento in January. “I sit out here and I protest to let her know that I’m here and I care, but it just sucks,” she said, wiping a stream of tears. “It’s just wrong when a child can go and hide in a place, and be mad at their mom for their mom not letting them run the streets and do drugs. Renée C. Byer [email protected]

One incident last summer involved an underage resident who entered a vehicle with two males across the street and began “engaging in inappropriate activities,” according to a complaint investigation report.

The staff followed behind in a vehicle but was reluctant to knock on the window. They called the police instead. When interviewed, one child initially alleged an assault took place but later recanted. Two other residents, who were also inside the car, denied anything happened. The claim was deemed unsubstantiated.

An episode from May 2018 ended the same way when one resident tried to persuade another to go AWOL from the facility to “make some money” — presumably while on commercial sex dates.

The young girl doing the coercing had a history tied up in child sexual exploitation and was a known recruiter of others, the report said. It was alleged that staff were not trained well enough and failed to supervise children who fell into human trafficking.

Although the claim was unsubstantiated, the group home’s administrator scheduled a series of mandatory training sessions on working with sexually exploited children.

In its statement to The Bee, the Children’s Receiving Home noted California’s shift to recognizing children and teens exposed to sexual exploitation as victims and not criminals. In Sacramento County, that means teenagers who would in the past be sent to Juvenile Hall, are instead sent to the receiving home, they said.

“We are serving more youth with significant trauma,” Glynis Butler-Stone, a program director who was named as Ballard’s replacement, said in the statement. “We are seeing emotional and behavioral manifestations of that trauma.”

But the failures have left families in a deeper state of regret.

Carmen’s 14-year-old granddaughter entered the Children’s Receiving Home last June after she ran away to a relative’s house and the county’s Child Protective Services stepped in.

Carmen, whose last name has been withheld to protect her granddaughter’s identity, said her granddaughter was the kind of girl abusers might easily persuade — wide-eyed, a little goofy and not at all street smart. She was placed in a group home in Riverside County where she bonded with an older girl who introduced her to trading sex for money, she said.

Carmen said her granddaughter has told her about what she is doing. Now Carmen keeps tabs on her through various Instagram accounts where each photo is like a window into her illicit new world. The images suggest she’s drinking and regularly goes to Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco.

“The girl she is today is a different kid. She’s totally different,” said Carmen, who still sees her from time to time. “You just look in her eyes and it’s like she’s lost.”

She likes to boast about the money, Carmen said. But the freedom she gained has already added to any existing trauma. She told her about being raped and beaten up. Carmen said she’s frustrated with how no one seems capable or willing to intervene.

“My concern with this whole foster care system is they’re not protecting the children,” Carmen said. “It’s designed to fail.”

‘They’re supposed to protect her’

Hours before the accident that killed Kendra Czekaj, chaos had overrun the Children’s Receiving Home campus. Using public records and interviews, The Bee pieced together the evening of Kendra’s death to show the most detailed version of the event to date.

Several residents, including Kendra, had run away to a Denny’s parking lot across the street shortly after 8 p.m. A counselor trailed behind in a vehicle and another on foot, asking the kids to return.

Two of the children jumped on top of the vehicle as the others ran down the street. For nearly an hour, the staff did not know where Kendra or the others went so they reported them missing, according to a police report.

Back at the Auburn Boulevard campus, a teenage girl was out of control in the lobby of the adjacent county facility, the CPSU. For nearly an hour, the 16-year-old girl cursed and screamed inside the intake unit on the campus. She threw chairs, struck windows and hit other children, falling to the ground at one point until someone helped her to stand.

Internal reports by the county suggested staff believed she was intoxicated or high. Two teenage girls calmed her down and they began walking toward Watt Avenue.

Standing on opposite ends of the Auburn Boulevard and Watt Avenue intersection, the two groups of runaways called out to each other and then merged. Together, they ambled up the busy street and headed for a nearby Wendy’s restaurant where the children often went to use the WiFi.

The distressed girl rushed toward the onramp of the Capital City Freeway with six other children scurrying after her. A Children’s Receiving Home employee called 911 from a nearby car.

“She’s under the influence of something,” a woman on staff told dispatchers. “She’s literally going down the hill onto the highway.”

She stopped at the edge of the highway and then crossed; two more children followed behind her and stood atop the median wall. As Kendra — possibly the youngest in the group — tried to join them, she was struck by a Lexus sedan before she could make it across all three lanes.

Traffic stalled as Kendra lay on the pavement of the first lane. A doctor left his vehicle to check her pulse. Just before 10 p.m., a woman called 911 again with audible screaming in the background.

“Somebody’s dead,” she said.

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Six lanes of Capital City Freeway traffic run under the Watt Avenue overpass near the Children’s Receiving Home in Sacramento on in January. Kendra Czekaj, 12, was struck by a car and killed when she tried to join other AWOL teens in the median on January 15. Renée C. Byer [email protected]

Michele Bryant, Kendra’s mother, was roused awake by a knock on the door shortly after midnight.

Alone with her three other children, Michele saw two figures through the peephole but didn’t open it. The sticky note left on the door had a case number at the bottom and at the top, it read “Sacramento County Coroner.”

“I was so confused,” Michele said in an interview with The Bee. “How does this happen when they’re supposed to protect her?”

The basic details of Kendra’s death trickled out into the news and social media. Michele went to the Children’s Receiving Home to pick up her dead daughter’s possessions. She hoped they could also give her some answers.

Michele got Kendra’s belongings in a bag but she’s still waiting for an explanation.

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Michele Bryant wipes tears in February as she talks about the January death of her daughter Kendra Czekaj, 12. Czekaj was killed running across a freeway after going AWOL from the Children’s Receiving Home in Sacramento Renée C. Byer [email protected]

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Michele Bryant shows a picture during a February interview of the notification that was left on her front door by the Sacramento County Coroner’s office when they tried to contact her the night her daughter Kendra Czekaj, 12, died. I was so confused, Bryant said. How does this happen when theyre supposed to protect her? Renée C. Byer [email protected]

Kendra was placed by a judge at the Children’s Receiving Home after sexual abuse allegations surfaced against her father, Carewin Czekaj, who was arrested last March. Earlier this year, he pleaded no contest to two counts of lewd acts with a minor and one count of committing lewd acts with a minor by force. He was sentenced in June to 14 years in state prison.

Kendra’s mood had changed and a family court judge thought the services offered at the Children’s Receiving Home could help her cope. Afterward, she was supposed to live full-time with Michele.

Kendra had been at the Children’s Receiving Home for less than 10 days when she died. Even in that short time, Michele said she saw her daughter on at least two occasions go AWOL from the facility. Michele only lived 5 minutes away, and each time, Michele said she brought her back.

In January, more than 200 people crammed into the tiny chapel room of the East Lawn Mortuary as teachers, close friends and family eulogized the girl they knew. Her round face, projected on the walls, beamed in every photograph.

Kendra was a cheerleader with fierce moves and enough rhythm to dance to any song. A sister who would help her little brother hunt for lizards and frogs. Outspoken and caring, she was someone who found friends wherever she went.

Mourners were shocked by her death. What was supposed to be a brief stay had strangely turned into a tragedy in a place that was supposed to be safe.

How they handle runaways

In their statement to The Bee, the Children’s Receiving Home said combating AWOL children is hindered by state laws and regulations that limit restrictions on personal freedom.

They noted that children are allowed to have cell phones, which can’t be confiscated by staff. In interviews, children at the home said they use their phones to make contact outside of the home, including with friends and family members who may entice them to leave.

At the same time, administrators said they are seeing more difficult cases involving teenagers who need far more intensive services. Group home officials said those demanding cases are the reason runaway activity increased in recent years. Frequently, the same child will leave multiple times, usually generating a missing person report for each occasion.

In the statement, administrators said in the past year they’ve changed some policies to adapt. Older children, for example, can now earn the privilege of signing out to do things off-campus, sometimes with chaperones. They said the policy discourages children from leaving without permission.

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A 12-year-old girl is escorted to a Sacramento Police car at the Children’s Receiving Home on in February. She said she’d been sleeping on a couch at the Centralized Placement Support Unit for 3 days after leaving her foster home. She often leaves the facility and goes AWOL, she said, “just to see if anyone will notice and follow me.” Renée C. Byer [email protected]

Butler-Stone said despite a staffing ratio of 1 supervisor to 3 children, “The trauma these kids have endured — coupled with typical adolescent development pressures – can tempt our adolescents to leave the grounds, either separately or with others.”

“These kids are in a world of hurt; it’s what they’ve known throughout their lives,” Ballard, the former CEO, said in the statement. “It’s not surprising that their behaviors can be problematic, that some lash out.”

When Bee journalists visited the facility one night in early February, a 13-year-old resident darted from the building around 7 p.m. He scaled the iron gate that surrounds the group home, standing on an electrical control box before he hurtled himself over the top.

A woman on staff followed behind, calling out for him to come back. The boy ran across the four-lane street anyway.

Moments later, and a few yards away, an older teenage girl who was also staying at the Children’s Receiving Home boarded the No. 1 bus toward the Watt Avenue light rail station with a friend. She said she had permission to leave.

Child welfare experts say a “punishment-first” approach is at the heart of what’s wrong with many group homes. Using the same tactics as drug treatment programs sends the message that children aren’t trusted, said Kelly Reiter, a child welfare attorney in Marin County.

“They’re running away because group homes are built on models that start with punishment first rather than love and acceptance and understanding first,” Reiter said. “If you can do what you want on the street, why on God’s earth would you walk into a jail? Which is how the kids see it.”

Although the Children’s Receiving Home is a dramatic example, behavioral issues and management problems have plagued other group homes in California as well. EMQ FamiliesFirst, a group home chain, closed its Davis facility in 2013 after reports of frequent runaways, fights, drug use that ended with a police raid on the facility.

Why these issues persist is obvious, said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. The biggest problem in the child welfare system is that too many children are in it who shouldn’t be, he said.

“The issue isn’t the right to leave,” Wexler said. “The issue is having these parking place shelters in the first place; they’re the worst kind of placement for children.”

The Bee’s Renée C. Byer contributed to this story.

CORRECTION: Captions on a photo and video accompanying this story incorrectly stated that two children have been killed or injured by cars after running away from the Children’s Receiving Home facility. One child ran away from the receiving home, and another child ran away from the Centralized Placement Support Unit, a county-run unit on the same campus.

Corrected Sep 5, 2020

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Mike Finch joined The Bee in July 2018 as a data reporter after working at newspapers in Alabama and Florida. A Miami native, he has been a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors since 2012 and studied political science at Florida International University.

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Molly Sullivan covers Folsom, Roseville and Placer County, as well as police accountability, for The Bee. She grew up in Northern California and is an alumna of Chico State.