December 16, 2017
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Troubled California Group Home to Close

Management’s decision to close a home in Long Beach ends one crisis, but the state is still seeking answers for dealing with its most troubled children.

by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

After months of unrest, Bayfront, a group home for troubled children in Long Beach, California, is scheduled to close at the end of October.

The decision by Bayfront’s operators comes after state authorities determined that the home had committed an array of violations involving the safe and responsible care of some of the state’s most vulnerable children. Recent investigations by the state Department of Social Services concluded that workers had violated Bayfront's own policies by physically restraining children on the street; that staff was poorly trained; that workers may have underreported to the county incidents of suspected child abuse; that the facility was likely admitting children with mental health problems beyond the staff's ability to manage.

On Wednesday, a Bayfront official sent an email to state and county officials informing them that Bayfront’s chief executive officer, Maryam Ribadu, and the home’s board of directors had decided to close the facility. The email, according to several people who have seen it, claimed the decision to close the facility was driven in large part by negative publicity surrounding its recent operations.

In August, ProPublica reported on Bayfront’s long history of trouble with regulators and local residents. For the better part of a year, Bayfront had been plagued by allegations of physical abuse, frequent emergency police calls, high staff turnover, runaway children and heated altercations between group home employees and neighbors. The home became the subject of two investigations — one led by DSS and another by the Los Angeles County Probation Department. The probation department had placed a hold on the facility in July, barring it from admitting any new children from the county.

It’s unclear where the children currently living in the 40-bed facility will go. Some will likely be reunited with their biological families; others likely will be sent to foster families and group homes elsewhere in the state.

California has struggled for years to provide adequate services and supervised care for thousands of foster children and those who wind up in the juvenile justice system. Over the past several years, several large group homes and juvenile detention centers have closed in the face of reports of abuse and neglect. The state legislature is now moving toward eliminating group homes almost entirely, with the aim of reserving them strictly for short-term stays.

Kathy Hughes, the top official at another social services agency that had been renting the property to Bayfront since May 2012, said she had been planning on terminating Bayfront’s lease on December 31, but that she had hoped the facility could relocate.

“It’s really a shame,” said Hughes, who is the chief executive officer at ChildNet.

“While not shocking,” she added, “it’s extremely disappointing. I don’t see the larger problem going away. We still have more kids than we can deal with.” Hughes said her agency gets over 300 calls a month for children she can’t place in foster homes.

“We have a real problem going on here,” she said. “And now we have one less group home.”

Michael Weston, a spokesman for DSS, which oversees group homes throughout the state, said this week that “any decision to relocate or close the Bayfront group home is a decision made by Bayfront management.”

“With the closure of any group home,” he said, “the department’s focus is on ensuring that all youth’s needs are continually met and to reduce any negative effects of transfer trauma into an appropriate new placement.”

ProPublica first wrote about trouble at Bayfront in April 2015 as part of a larger examination of California’s Level 14 group homes— those designated to care for the most disturbed children in the state. We found that Bayfront had been the subject of dozens of complaints to DSS between 2009 and 2014, including allegations of sexual abuse and children suffering injuries at the hands of staff. The state substantiated many of the complaints, but in nearly every case accepted the facility’s promises to retrain its staff. Records show that problems at the home intensified throughout the first half of this year.

This summer, neighbors of the home in Long Beach described incidents of children fleeing the facility and being tackled by staff on the street. A child who lived at the home said he’d seen frequent fights among residents that were allowed and even encouraged by staff. Police said they were frustrated by the large volume of 911 calls regarding runaways and violence at the home. City officials were aggravated that the state had not intervened more aggressively.

In emailed statements to ProPublica, Ribadu, the Bayfront CEO, said she had been trying to bring the facility under control. She said she implemented new standards for screening children prior to arrival; established a formal community complaint and grievance procedure; installed several surveillance cameras; refreshed trainings for staff; hired a private security agency for night patrol; and adopted a ‘“zero tolerance” policy for staff that engages in unprofessionalism and misconduct.’” She also said that the facility would be moving toward a new, more sophisticated model of treatment for its youth.

Documents provided by DSS suggest that Ribadu had been scrambling more recently to preserve a chance at keeping the home open. At least five low-level staffers were fired in recent months. One was terminated after inappropriately restraining a child on the street in front of the home. Four others were fired because two children were found having sex in one of the home’s bedrooms one night. According to the DSS records, the four employees responsible for supervising those children had falsified bed check reports.

Another document, dated September 16, indicates that two senior managers of the home had also been recently fired. Several people familiar with the DSS investigation told ProPublica that Marleana Reed, the administrator of the group home, was one of those terminated.

Ribadu would not comment on any recent personnel changes. Reached by phone, Reed would not confirm or deny that she’d been fired.

Patricia Cronan, who lives next door to Bayfront, told ProPublica she was relieved by its closing. But she said she was saddened by the fate of the children and sees the home’s demise largely as a government failure.

“I have learned so much about how dysfunctional our city and state politics are,” she said. “To me that was a huge education and very demoralizing."

In a statement, Long Beach City Councilman Daryl Supernaw gave credit to people like Cronan for bringing the problems at Bayfront to his attention. Supernaw represents the Long Beach district where Bayfront is located and coordinated several community meetings regarding the home.

“I admire the neighboring residents’ courage and resolve to see this to a conclusion,” said Supernaw.

Help us investigate: If you have experience with or information about California child welfare and juvenile detention, email joaquin.sapien@propublica.org.

Related stories: For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on California group homes.

THE CALLS FOR HELP came day and night from the group home for troubled children in Davis, California. Dozens a day – to the police, to state authorities, the unending pleas chronicling sexual assaults and suicide tries, runaways and random violence. A rescue was mounted too late, and the disaster in Davis to this day haunts those it touched. This is the story of Sule Anibaba, who worked as a counselor at the Davis home for five years, emerging both damaged and ashamed.

Sule’s story is part of ProPublica’s investigation into the failure of California’s juvenile home system. For more on this video, read “Investigative Journalism, Illustrated,” our Q&A with the creators of Level 14.