The Juvenile Justice Commission of Santa Clara County recently finished an inspection report on the newly opened county receiving center for neglected and abused children. The receiving center replaced the larger Children’s Shelter site that was closed after the sale of the county property on Union Avenue. The Union Avenue property was declared surplus and sold to Harker School.
The 132-bed facility was built with much fanfare in the 1990s, but large institutions were soon viewed less than “best practice” for serving abused children. For the past few years, while abused and neglect children were routinely sent to relatives, foster homes or small group homes, the Union Avenue campus did house a receiving center that had plenty of room to operate with a cafeteria, gym and cottages for sleeping.
The Juvenile Justice Commission is a state mandated body that is required to inspect and write reports on the conditions of detention centers for children and youth who come in contact with the justice system or dependency system. Usually focused on inspections of juvenile hall or the ranches, the commission this time decided to inspect the new receiving center after the center was opened for only three days. I got a number of calls from media outlets last Friday asking me to comment on the report. I told most of them that I thought the county deserved more than three days to get the location in order and I needed to find out what had been done since the inspection.
A receiving center is not meant to be a residential program, and children and youth usually stay less than 24 hours. During this time, social workers seek out relatives to place children temporarily or may reunite them with their parents. If this doesn’t work, they place children in temporary foster homes or small group homes.
The 11 children cited in the report who stayed more than 24 hours were from the Union Avenue location, not the new location. Remember, it had only been open for three days when inspected. I do know that the social workers try every possible option to get kids out of the receiving center within a 24-hour period.
But, sometimes, no one will take these kids, including Bill Wilson Center. The few kids who aren’t placed immediately are sometimes medically fragile or severely autistic, or they have other disabilities that cannot be treated in many foster homes. The county has no choice but to hold onto these children until that can find a safe place for them.
An administrator from the Social Services Agency reported this week to the Juvenile Justice Commission that the majority of the issues in the report had already been corrected. There was fresh fruit and food for the kids, the dumpster was removed, the security and lights installed, water drained, and the rooms were made more “kid-friendly.” As expected, the county staff was quick to correct the shortcomings cited in the report.
We should all thank the volunteers of the Juvenile Justice Commission for completing these inspections and reports on our juvenile facilities. Many years ago, I served on the Juvenile Justice Commission in San Francisco and had a major impact in improving conditions in the SF Juvenile Hall. I even wrote a report on a boy named Aldo, who committed suicide in a group home. If not for that report, this homeless, undocumented kid would most likely have been forgotten.
The Juvenile Justice Commissioners see things through their own experiences and lenses. I, for one, do not believe the location is unsafe. The downtown San Jose location is more centrally located than the Westside Union Avenue site, and it’s easier for parents to reach by public transit. Alas, while I might quibble with the need for adding a list of police reports in the area, I appreciate their thoroughness and thoughtful approach to the report. I am glad we have so many people working for the county—as staff and volunteers—who have our children’s best interests in mind.
Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.