Just 13 years after opening a multi-million dollar safe harbor for abused and neglected kids, Santa Clara County is moving the last operations from its troubled shelter, marking the final chapter in a failed approach to care for needy children.
The county has sold the eight-acre campus off San Jose's Union Avenue to the elite Harker School, three years after a major policy shift to place kids in family homes, not institutions, had converted the shelter to an intake center leaving the vast majority of the 132 beds empty.
Beginning Dec. 1, children entering foster care will stop only briefly at a downtown county medical facility on East Santa Clara Street. There will be only eight beds and two to three children expected at a time. Kids will stay no more than 24 hours before being placed with relatives, foster parents or small group-homes.
When the shelter first opened, kids often stayed for weeks and even months, and a 2003 investigation by this newspaper found daily reports of rampant violence at the facility.
"It was well-intentioned; it just didn't keep up with where the field was moving in terms of what's best for kids," said Lori Medina, director of the county's Department of Family and Children's Services.
The shift ends a volatile period in the local child welfare system. The shelter opened in 1999 amid great fanfare, boasting cottages around a ballfield, a sunlit cafeteria, a gymnasium, art studio and computer lab. Silicon
At the same time, however, shelters began shutting down across the country, as a consensus grew among experts about the hazards of grouping troubled children in large residential facilities. Despite its curbside appeal, Santa Clara County's shelter showed signs of distress just a year after opening.
"It was a state-of-the-art facility,'' Medina said, "but it also contributed to a bigger problem -- it was an answer and a dilemma for us as well."
Medina said the shelter eventually became "an attractive nuisance."
To be sure, in the last three years the county dramatically reduced the shelter's scope, confining operations to 15 percent of the expansive campus, limiting most stays to a day, and changing the name to a "receiving center."
Annual costs are down to $4.6 million, from $12.6 million spent in 2008. In 2006-07, the shelter averaged 147 monthly admissions compared with just 46 last fiscal year. The new center will employ 43 staffers, down from a peak of 173.
Youth advocates and child welfare experts insist the shift from shelter care represents more than taxpayer relief. In a shelter, "you're removed from everything, your family, your brothers and sisters, and then you're surrounded by people you don't know and you don't know what's going to happen to you," said former foster youth Hemal Sharifzada. "You almost feel like, what did I do wrong?"
Now 31, Sharifzada landed at the children's shelter that pre-dated the Union Avenue site four times between the ages of 11 and 14, staying between two weeks and four months.
And although he said there were staff and volunteers with "the biggest hearts and all the right intentions," Sharifzada remembers seeing the same children's faces again and again. "You get that feeling of 'unwantedness,' thinking: 'Well, the other kids got families -- why not us?'"
Lengthy shelter stays are no longer part of the foster care experience here. But the change took a decade, despite serious warnings that surfaced shortly after the shelter's 1999 opening:
County officials took heed. The top juvenile judge at the time, Len Edwards, and then-social services director Will Lightbourne -- who arrived in 2000 and is now state social services director -- fought to decrease reliance on the shelter.
The county placed children more quickly with relatives and foster parents, and had social workers, not police, remove them from their homes so they could bypass the shelter altogether. Workers also provided more upfront services to families to avoid unnecessary removals, a larger trend that has resulted in foster care numbers plunging state and nationwide.
As a result, the Union Avenue site now sits empty almost one out of every three days, Medina said. The average stay in 2003 was 13 days. In the last two years, only five kids have stayed more than 24 hours.
Now, the property has been sold for $25.5 million to an elite K-12 private school, the Harker School. The campus for abused and neglected children is already so lovely, it can easily shift to house a private school that charges up to $37,500 in tuition. As much as $8 million could go back into county coffers after the move is complete and proceeds are split with the foundation that funded development, officials say.
But the new shelter alternative has its critics, including social workers who call the site inappropriate, and unsafe for kids and staff. The county building at 725 E. Santa Clara St. is located across from Roosevelt Park, which police consider a gang "hot spot."
"These are kids who've been neglected and abused and they had some open space, which some of them had never had before," said Wren Bradley, a union representative for social workers. "Management wants to corral them into a tiny space, which we don't feel will work at all for these kids."
But John Mattingly, a consultant with the nation's leading child welfare foundation who advised local officials for years, praised the county for shifting away from the old shelter model and joining the national trend. "They didn't just shut it down,'' he said, "they made sure they had the right services for these kids."
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.