‘It’s like he’s in prison.’ A child under Madera County’s custody confined to office building

·5 min read
Fresno Bee file

Another San Joaquin Valley agency is housing a foster child in a county office, according to interviews and an internal email obtained by The Fresno Bee.

Three months after The Bee revealed in October that Fresno County was holding youth in a Child Protective Services office building, a similar picture has emerged in Madera County.

In Madera County, it involves one minor with severe mental health issues. The youth might have immigrated from a country in South America, and doesn’t speak English, a county worker told The Bee.

The county worker, who asked for anonymity due to fears of retaliation, said the youth has been housed for about two to three months in a visitation room in the Child Welfare Services building, where social workers report to work.

The youth has a cot or a folding bed, along with his belongings, in the visitation room, the county worker said. The minor is supervised 24 hours a day by two to four staff members and security officials, who stay outside the visitation room’s door, the county worker said.

The minor even gets “escorted to the restroom and escorted back to the room,” the county worker said. The minor does get showers. When the youth needs recreational time, he is taken to an enclosed compound where Madera County Department of Social Services employees park their county vehicles, the county worker said, and staffers kick a ball with him.

“It’s like he’s in prison,” the county worker told The Bee. “His issues are so severe, we can’t find placement for him anywhere, so the department is just keeping him in the building.”

Under California law, it’s illegal for counties to house minors in unlicensed facilities, and the counties can be subject to civil penalties for doing so. Officials with the California Department of Social Services late on Monday said they were looking into The Bee’s questions for this story.

Madera County seeks help overseeing child’s welfare

An internal email obtained by The Bee depicts the Madera County Department of Social Services’ efforts to supervise the youth being housed in the office.

In the email, Shanel Moore, a child welfare manager with the Madera County Department of Social Services, seeks help from employees to help fill various shifts in January. The shifts include hours that are around the clock.

Moore didn’t return a call from The Bee.

“This is a submission to request for shift coverages to supervise our youth as our efforts for securing placement continue,” Moore wrote to staff in the email. “We are trying to be proactive and ensure we can keep and maintain the safety for this youth under our care with a team of supervisors. We are seeking 1 person per shift along with Security and TBS when he is here in the office setting.”

TBS stands for therapeutic behavioral services.

Danny Morris, a deputy director for child welfare and adult services at the Madera County Department of Social Services, who is marked as having volunteered for two of those shifts, on Monday said he couldn’t talk about children, and couldn’t confirm or deny whether there was a child currently in the office. He did say children come to the office when they’re in need of placement.

Deborah Martinez, director of the Department of Social Services, said she wasn’t able to answer questions about “any particular child.”

“I can provide you just a few factors that can be effecting the placement of a child being served by Child Welfare Social Services...” she wrote in an email to The Bee. “Also, I can assure you that any county that is having difficulty in securing placement for a child/youth has a team of staff reaching out to 100’s of facilities up and down the state attempting to find placement and would have had multiple calls with multiple state department staff and a frequent basis as it is a very difficult position for all involved and most especially for the child/youth themselves.”

Martinez said a few “significant barriers” to foster children’s placements include a “consistent shortage statewide of pediatric psychiatric hospital beds,” an inadequate number of short-term residential placement options, as well as the frequency of a child or youth running away from their placements since they cannot be restrained or “kept in a locked room/home.”

Some facilities have also been impacted or have reduced their operations due to COVID-19 and staff availability, she said.

Another barrier, Martinez said, is the “complexity of the laws governing Child Welfare Services.”

Martinez didn’t return follow-up calls and email inquiries.

Fresno County officials also cited a shortage of placement options for foster children with high needs after The Bee reported on children’s living conditions there.

Child held in office has mental health issues

The Madera County worker said that the child, who is between the ages of 15 and 17, has been the only minor under the county’s care who has been housed in the office building for this long.

“No youth has ever been in the building for more than a day or two,” the worker said. “This is incredible.”

The county worker said this has been “an ongoing issue with this kid.”

“He’s not been successful in any placement where they place him,” the county worker said.

But the county worker questioned whether the department can essentially “detain a person.” The child hasn’t committed a crime, and his current situation is a “violation of his personal rights,” the county worker said.

The youth might have been placed on 5150 holds before, the county worker said. That’s when a person, who can be a danger to themselves or others, is held for up to 72 hours for a mental evaluation. On Tuesday, the Madera Police Department hadn’t responded to an inquiry for this story.

“Medication is given to him,” the county worker said.

Under California law, children 12 and up can consent to their own mental health treatment or counseling on an outpatient basis. “I don’t know if he knows this,” the county worker said of the youth’s rights under the law.

The county worker said no one seems to be advocating for the minor.

“Who’s advocating for him?” the worker asked. “Where’s his attorney?”

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