May 20, 2013: Almost one-third of the 100 foster children living in group homes in Orange County "walk away" each month, according to Michael Riley, director of the county's Social Services Agency, in a report to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. While Supervisor John Moorlach was unfazed, saying, "Having a juvenile walk away from a group home seems sort of ordinary to me," others on the board were more concerned.
Reporting for Voice of OC, Nick Gerda writes:
... Supervisor Todd Spitzer, at left, [raised] questions about [those] foster children who walk away...and the lack of information that the [supervisors] 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.....Spitzer voiced his concerns just before supervisors unanimously approved a $16-million, three-year contract with unspecified group home providers.
“I had no idea there were so many calls for service at some of these group homes,” Spitzer said [at the May 14th] meeting. “The numbers, to me, are unacceptable.”... 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....
The discussion prompted a commitment from county staff to start providing basic monthly reports to the board on walk-away incidents at group homes...The real question, [Supervisor Moorlach] 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 [the other supervisors] should have a specific goal in seeking more group home information. ... “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?” ...
Spitzer criticized the state for largely tying local government’s hands when it comes to regulating where the foster care facilities are placed. ...“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.
[SSA director Michael] 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... County staff, however, doesn't confirm through police logs that group homes are truly reporting every incident...Riley [later agreed] 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.”