County Children’s Shelter Needed to Go

With the recent sale of the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter, we have come to the end of an era of using large institutions to serve abused and neglected children. As recently reported in the Mercury News, the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter is currently in escrow to be purchased by Harker School—a prestigious K-12 private school.

The Children’s Shelter was built in the early 90s, replacing a decrepit 70-bed nursing-home type building on Roberts Street. The old facility had large dormitory-style rooms with metal lockers lined up on the wall. It was truly depressing. Something had to change. Diane McKenna, who was on the Board of Supervisors at the time, took the lead on fundraising and building a new Children’s Shelter. With the support of the county, Diane and Regis McKenna formed a foundation to help fundraise for the new 132-bed, state-of-the-art campus, which included 10 12-bed cottages, an onsite school with cafeteria and recreational facilities. 

While no one questioned the need to get children out of the Roberts Street shelter, the best practice at the time for treating children removed from their homes did not include using large institutions. In fact, most experts across the US were closing shelters down in the 90s and moving toward “family preservation” services—placing children in kinship care, or in foster homes. Early studies showed that kids were being further traumatized by spending even a few days in an institution, no matter how it looked or what services were provided. 

I was one of the lone voices at the time questioning the need for a large institution. My concern was that it was almost doubling the size of the existing shelter and there would be pressure to fill all the beds. With a comfortable place to house kids, I feared there might be less pressure for social workers to reunite children with their families quickly. I especially opposed housing children under the age of 6 in such an institution. We were basically building a new orphanage in a county that prided itself on cutting-edge services and best practices.

The Shelter quickly ran into issues upon opening. A lawsuit against the state by the National Center for Youth Law required that all children under the age of 5 be removed from institutions and placed in kinship care or foster homes. I still remember the sight of 12 toddlers walking two-by-two, hand-in-hand, back from the cafeteria to their cottage when visiting the Shelter. It disturbed me to think we couldn’t find a relative or foster home to care for these very young children. Apparently, it also disturbed the courts.

Over the years the Shelter changed to serve primarily older teenagers with behavior or mental health issues—often the kids that “failed” group home placements and multiple foster homes. Many of these kids stayed months at the facility and it became their home. Will Lightbourne changed all this when he took over as the new director of Social Services.

Along with his staff, Will implemented “best practice” services to reduce the number of children that were removed from their homes. Soon the number of children requiring housing from the Children’s Shelter dropped dramatically. In 2010, the Children’s Shelter stopped housing children and changed to a 23-hour assessment center. After the assessment, children returned home, went to relative care, or were placed in temporary foster homes. Running an assessment center out of such a large residential facility was not particularly cost-effective, but it was better than leaving the place empty. After the recession hit and funding became tighter, the Board of Supervisors agreed to sell the property and move the assessment center to a smaller location. 

I posted a blog about the Children’s Shelter some time ago and it remains one of my most popular posts to this day. I received a lot of feedback from youth who had stayed at the shelter; many of them were unhappy to see it close. They felt the Shelter had been their home and cared deeply for the counselors who had watched over them. One young man recalled the “quiet room”—a padded room they would be locked in as punishment if they’d done something wrong—equating the room with a child being sent to his bedroom by his parents. While the Shelter may have been better than the homes some of these kids had been removed from, this example goes to show just how institutionalized these youth had become. I for one am happy to see the county finally close the chapter on the Children’s Shelter.

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.

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.


  1. This a good thing for the San Jose Police Department especially in the wake of Mayor Reed’s dismantling of that agency. THe facility had next to no security as wards would frequently leave the “campus” at will. SJPD would be called, sometimes dozens of times per day to take “missing persons” reports on juveniles who simply ran away. I totally understand why the Shelter Staff needed to make the reports: due diligence to limit the County’s liability as the designated care providers.

    What I never understood was why Santa Clara County had SJPD provide police services to the county run facility as opposed to the SANTA CLARA COUNTY Sheriff’s Office.

    Then again the S.O. relies on SJPD to handle nearly all policing functions that the Sheriff’s office is contracted to provide like on the Valley Transit System and at Valley Med.

    I have to wonder how they intended to police the Airport had they won that contract? Based on the way they traditionally do things I suspect they would be calling SJPD to handle their business.

  2. Dear Ms. Harlan,
    I agree with much of what you have said. I think in “some cases” what is in the best interest of the children involved in these unhealthy living situations, is assisting troubled family with resources, programs, and keeping them together. Having said that, my pet peeve is with the Family Court system, and ensuring quality follow up care.

    A few years ago, my long time, very troubled, former neighbor molested his 18 month old son. He was arrested after a SECOND report was filed.

    CPS took the boy a way because his live in girl friend and his live in mother, lied about knowing he was doing it, lucky they got caught in their lies, so CPS took the boy a way, and placed him into an incredible foster family.

    The mother went into a shelter, took classes, and a year later, got the boy back. The father only did 2 days in jail, got off easy with 2 years probation, classes, even though during his visitation, the now 3 year old boy claimed his father was touching his penis, and hurting him.

    Long story short, the court closed the case and as soon as they did, the parents got back together and the poor kid is back in an unhealthy, sick environment, with ZERO oversight.

    The mother has cut off all ties with the foster family, her family, and her friends, so no one knows how this child is doing because laws are designed to protect the offender, NOT the child.

    I don’t always agree that working with families like these is really in the best interest of the child. Given the stats on children becoming abusers after growing up around abuse, I’m pretty sure this once young innocent child will become just another sad statistic, and a sexual predictor, or abuser himself, thanks to the mentality of “keeping families together at all costs.”