The first stop for most California children entering foster care is supposed to be a quick one on their way to a family home. They can get a checkup, some nourishment and clean clothes while a foster family or relative is found.
But a growing chorus of critics is calling for more oversight after finding that assessment centers in two of California's biggest counties -- Los Angeles and Santa Clara -- are struggling to provide some kids with that quick, safe transition. Instead, the state is ordering both counties to stop housing children for longer than 24 hours at centers that critics say are little more than dressed-up office buildings.
A watchdog commission blasted Santa Clara County's new facility as "Spartan" and dangerous when it opened last month -- without adequate lighting and security, and with large shards of glass in a garbage bin outside its unlocked doors. The children's attorneys say the basement of the San Jose medical office building will never be welcoming enough for traumatized kids, no matter how many teddy bears are brought in and how colorful the fleece bedspreads.
State investigators have still other concerns: On Feb. 1, licensing officials cited the county's social service agency for keeping children more than 24 hours in violation of health and safety codes, ordering they "immediately discontinue" the practice.
With Los Angeles County facing similar critiques, youth advocates are calling for greater accountability and state licensing of such centers, noting that Sacramento even licenses drop-in day care setups in malls, department stores and ski resorts.
"Some of them might be good, but we have no idea, we don't even know if everyone is fingerprinted, because there's really no one enforcing it," said Carole Shauffer of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center. "Our view is, when they start to serve food, they start to have little cots, when they are predictably going to have children there for several hours, we want them licensed."
Shauffer and other youth advocates lauded counties that shifted away from residential shelter care over the past decade, granting children the right to a family home, not an institution, when they could not live safely with their parents. Santa Clara County was among the most dramatic examples, downsizing its shelter from 132 beds to just eight, and limiting to just a day the stays that once had been weeks and even months.
But the transition has been a challenge, compounded recently when county officials here raced to open the Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center at 725 E. Santa Clara St. by mid-January. The center had previously been on suburban Union Avenue, nestled in a section of the former shelter campus that was considered state-of-the-art when it was built 14 years ago. The center was relocated after the property was recently sold to an exclusive private school.
The new center's goal is to accommodate just two to three children at a time. The kids are brought by social workers in between placements or immediately after being removed from their parents' care. Infants and children through age 18 are supposed to be on their way to relatives, foster families or group homes within 24 hours. And for that reason, the state does not require the center to have a residential license.
Yet twice within the past two months the state's Department of Social Services has issued citations stating children have stayed too long. According to county records, between the Union Avenue and East Santa Clara Street sites, 31 children stayed past the 24-hour limit in 2012, with 11 "overstays" in December alone. The overstays lasted from one hour to 37 days.
Continued violations could land Santa Clara County in the situation that Los Angeles now finds itself. On Feb. 7, the state ordered Los Angeles to "cease providing care and supervision of children" within 90 days at its Emergency Response Command Post.
Los Angeles County recently opened a center designed for children 11 and younger, but authorities are scrambling to find an alternative to the "command post" for older youths and teens who remain in an office high-rise.
"To have no child spend more than 23 hours and 59 minutes in the command post, that is a very challenging initiative," said Philip Browning, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. He said one 18-year-old, for example, had a history of setting fires, and had been repeatedly rejected by group homes.
Still, youth advocates say 24-hour centers could be improved by more state monitoring. Until the Youth Law Center filed suit in the mid-1990s, even residential shelters were not licensed in California, operating instead on county officials' good faith.
Now, Shauffer is returning to a similar battle, as more shelters have closed in the past decade to be replaced by unlicensed receiving centers.
"We acknowledge that every other place that a kid could end up has to be scrutinized really carefully, but we don't do that" in receiving centers, said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the San Diego-based Children's Advocacy Institute. "It's never made sense."
Santa Clara County officials say they don't need monitoring. Yet that assertion came into question just three days after the new San Jose facility opened, when members of the Superior Court's Juvenile Justice Commission found the center had trash outside, lacked healthful food and was in a dangerous neighborhood.
Last week, a reporter found the shards of glass and trash were gone, but the security and lighting systems had yet to be fully installed. The kitchenette had a bowl of apples and oranges. An oversize stuffed panda, train set and posters of Babar showed efforts to make the medical offices more kid-friendly.
Still, some say the lack of oversight means overstays and safety lapses could recur. In a sharply worded letter this month, the nonprofit law firm representing kids in the county's foster care system urged officials to find another spot sooner than the multiyear timeline now envisioned.
"We appreciate their attempts to make it warmer," said Jennifer Kelleher, directing attorney of Legal Advocates for Children and Youth, "but I don't think there's anything they can do in that facility to make it appropriate."
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.