As new reforms change the way group homes in the state operate, the struggles of a facility that aims to help sexually exploited children in the Bay Area illustrates the uncertain future of services for the vulnerable group.
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 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,” Brown said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
The Nest will re-open during an unsettled time for group home providers. New state laws that went into effect this year, known as Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), require that group homes convert to short-term residential therapeutic programs (STRTP) or stop serving youth in foster care.
STRTPs have specific staffing and service requirements. And under CCR, counties must review the appropriateness of continuing an STRTP placement within six months.
According to the California Department of Social Services website, “a process will be developed for county review and signature authority for extending placements.”
This is a significant change from the previous open-ended era of group home placements, wherein some foster youth remained in group homes for years until they aged out of the foster care system. The CCR reforms embody the philosophy that system-involved youth, like all kids, do better if raised in family-like settings.
“The premise and philosophy of CCR is designed for CSEC youth,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center.
Rodriguez said that often people will agree that some foster youth should be parented, but there are exceptions who need a higher level of care. And those exceptions, she said, almost always include CSEC youth. Rodriguez argued that those who have experienced sexual trauma are not exceptions but the type of youth who are “most desperately in need of parenting.”
Rodriguez, who was also sexually exploited and spent time in group homes as a child, said that CSEC youth are more likely to be “re-victimized or have their trauma re-exacerbated by residential care.”
Under CCR, all group homes seeking to provide therapeutic services to high-needs youth under the new model must add on mental health services and become nationally accredited – costly additions for many organizations.
The state is also providing training and increased financial assistance to families to help them care for some high-needs youth.
Still, with pressure on group homes to meet new standards, advocates remain concerned that there will not be enough families to take in high-needs youth like sexually exploited children.
If more group homes shut down before counties can recruit enough families, there will be a drastic shortage of placements for sexually exploited youth, some advocates worry.
“We can’t reduce youth in in congregate care without other placements,” said Susan Abrams, policy director for Children’s Law Center of California. “The fear is that we may see more kids ending up in a mental hospital or juvenile hall, and we definitely don’t want that.”
In the Bay Area, most youth are sent out of county and out of state to group homes. That is particularity true in high-rent, densely populated cities like San Francisco.
“It is a huge challenge, at least in San Francisco, to increase recruitment for foster families,” said Carly Devlin, who manages the CSEC programs at Huckleberry Youth Programs. “Anecdotally, CSEC youth are more often sent out of county and state.”
Devlin said many of the CSEC youth she works with want to stay in the city, often going AWOL in order to get back.
With CCR, Devlin said, there is a lot of tension as to how to design placements for CSEC in the community. She suggested that group homes receive financial support to convert to STRTPs and that there be more money offered to families who take in sexually exploited youth.
One way to keep sexually exploited youth in the community is to place them in an STRTP so they can get the help they need. The youth are then transitioned into a family setting. But the new short-term residential option might be too short term for Devlin.
“We’re wondering if six months is going to be enough time,” Devlin said. “Six months isn’t a lot of time.”
Rodriguez sees hope for CSEC youth in a pilot program in Florida called CHANCE. The program had good outcomes for formerly trafficked youth who were placed in family homes with intensive clinical support.
Rodriquez suggested that counties should make more use of community-based services in ways that support foster families. Similar to CHANCE, sexually exploited youth could be placed with a relative and attend day treatment with a local organization.
“Community services are untapped resources,” Rodriguez said. “It is a shame that it is not a part of CCR to engage community services already in existence.”
Other advocates hope that the group home reforms will be the motivating factor that makes everyone rethink how foster care can be improved to better serve trafficked youth, possibly leading the way for programs like CHANCE.
The new reforms under CCR kicked off at the start of this year, but to many advocates, changes have to yet to develop. Many say there are still not enough families, family recruitment is lacking for CSEC youth and kids are still being sent away.
The Nest is not the only Bay Area group home to face difficulty in recent years. In May, a Sonoma County group home for troubled youth shut down because it couldn’t afford to make the costly changes needed to meet the new state requirements. Last year, a group home for sexually exploited youth called R.I.S.E. closed after the state suspended its license. While its closure was unrelated to CCR, it points to the difficulty of caring for these youth and the need for quality staff.
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.
Brown said leadership was exasperated by the need to find staff who are not only qualified but who were also willing to work with youth who have been trafficked. “We work with a specialized population and it takes a special desire to work with these girls,” Brown said.
Advent Ministries operates The Nest and three other group homes that serve boys and girls with substance abuse issues. Brown said they have seven employees for The Nest and still have a need for one more.
It will be many months before The Nest completes the licensing process to be a short-term residential treatment program under the new regulations, according to Brown.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that all group homes must convert to six-month, short-term therapeutic programs or shut down. In some cases it may be determined that a youth should remain in the facility longer than six months; also, facilities can elect to no longer serve youth in foster care rather than cease operations.