Jurors say a lack of security allowed seven children to run away from the center in March. Fencing around the playground allows people to look in from the outside, compromising children’s privacy. Staffers couldn’t supply records showing how many counselors were CPR certified. And the building, a basement at the MediPlex facility on a seedy stretch of East Santa Clara Street in San Jose, lacks wheelchair accessibility.
“Wheelchair access/egress is very questionable,” the report states. “Even though we have been assured that the facility meets ADA requirements, it appears to the commission that in an emergency it would be very difficult to leave the center in a safe fashion.”
In addition to the litany of serious safety issues, jurors found that the Social Services Administration (SSA)—the agency in charge of the center—appears to be dismissing or hiding concerns raised during monthly stakeholder meetings. During meetings jurors attended last fall, stakeholders repeatedly talked about their fears over the site’s safety, but none of those comments were included in the meeting minutes compiled by the SSA.
“These continuing concerns include the high level of crime in the area, the need for a deputy sheriff onsite 24/7 and the concern about the staff having to ‘hunker down’ in a fire-rated hall with a disabled child while waiting to be rescued,” jurors wrote. But those were all left out of the meeting minutes.
A deputy sheriff staffs the place just 35 hours a week. The rest of the time, an unarmed security guard stands watch. That lapse in armed security is a pretty big deal for a facility that often sees desperate parents trying to get their kid back from forced placement.
The county moved its intake center from a 132-bed group home in suburban San Jose to the downtown basement in 2012 as part of a broader philosophical shift in the foster care field. Experts went from favoring institutional group homes to small, home-like settings and, ideally, placement with the child’s immediate family.
As an intake center, the new facility is unlicensed to care for children longer than 24 hours. But past audits have shown that kids stay at the shelter up to a month, in rare cases, and a few or more days “on a distressingly routine basis,” to quote a 2013 report by Superior Court’s juvenile justice commission.
SSA officials say they plan to phase out the center and move to a permanent site within the next few years. Jurors recommended making the move as soon as possible, to pluck children out of a neighborhood known for gang activity, drug use, prostitution and homelessness.
“The grand jury believes that the safety and security of children who pass through the [center] must be improved,” the report says. “Every child must feel protected until an alternative placement can be found.”