By Brian Rinker, Chronicle of Social Change
Allyson Bendell wasn’t always the most well-behaved girl, but that didn’t make her a criminal either.
In the world of group homes, however, where staff who are often undertrained and overwhelmed try to manage the severe behaviors that foster youth disproportionately exhibit, calling the police, for some, has become a go-to method for controlling kids.
A new law that went into effect the first of the new year is trying to change all that by forestalling excessive calls to police and, in so doing, mitigating the stigmatizing effect that contact with law enforcement invariably has on these youngsters.
Bendell, 17, is one of those kids, who for years, was frequently on the receiving end of the kind of unnecessary police intervention that the new law hopes to eliminate. She wound up bouncing through group homes and foster families because her emotional and behavioral issues made her difficult for less trained staff to handle.
She was defiant, prone to outbursts—screaming, yelling, cussing—and running away. She threw temper tantrums. A lot.
She spent most of her life in foster care, beginning when she was age 5. Bendell said her mother and father’s parental rights were terminated when she was 7. One of her parents was in prison, the other homeless.
“The anger came from being alone,” Bendell said. “I wanted someone to love me.”
In her 12 years in the system, she moved through more than 30 foster care placements, including a string of foster families, two group homes and many emergency shelters, temporary housing for foster youth in between placements.
While Bendell admitted that her behavior made life difficult for those trying to care for her, she said that none of her foster families called the police. Only the group home facilities got the cops involved.
“I was trying to be heard and feeling like no one would really listen,” Bendell said. “I needed a one-on-one connection and a group is the worst situation for that.”
Joan Berry, who was Bendell’s Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, agreed with the assessment.
“Ally has had really good experiences in foster care, but her temper tantrums made it difficult,” Berry said. “Ally is a child of the system and it is very hard to overcome that.”
At 13, Bendell said she went to live in a San Joaquin County level-14 group home, run by Valley Oak Residential. Level-14 homes are meant to serve youth with serious emotional issues, a designation that Bendell said she did not fit. She said that most of the girls there were older and violent, and that the staff regularly called the police.
“The group home staff used the police to intimidate the girls to keep them in check.” If the kids acted out, fought each other, yelled, threw chairs at the wall, the police would come and each girl would have to sit on her bed as the cops lectured them. “The police were used as a ruling hand,” Bendell added. “They were used as control. They were used as a behavioral correction.”
Valley Oak Residential did not respond to requests for comment.
“Being in a group home with that much police involvement made it so much harder to be normal,” Bendell said. “It was worse than a correctional facility, more like a holding cell. There was no correction going on, you’re just being kept there.”
Providing foster youth with the most normal, homelike experience possible—while making sure that the experience is a safe one—is what’s at the heart of the new law, AB 388, which means minimizing the presence of law enforcement in group homes, and curtailing extended stays in juvenile hall for foster kids who are detained because they have nowhere else to go.
“The purpose of [the law] is to prevent foster youth from being arrested and charged for misbehavior that wouldn’t happen to anyone other than a foster youth,” said Martha Matthews, an attorney for Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm that represents children. “The mere fact that someone is in foster care should not result in their being detained.”
With these goals in mind, AB 388 will trigger a state investigation once a year into any group home that calls the police “a greater than average number” of times. What “greater than average” actually means is still to be determined. That number will probably arise from the new data the law is requiring group homes to collect and release. From now on group homes will have to report every time one of its youth comes in contact with law enforcement, and provide a follow-up report within six months to the state Community Care Licensing Division, an agency within Social Services charged with overseeing residential facilities, including group homes.
For foster youth who are detained at juvenile hall, the law requires immediate notification of child welfare services and an attorney for alternative placement.
For the complete article, go to https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/news/cops-group-homes-and-criminalized-kids/9109