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Crime & Justice

Hundreds of California foster children are arrested when they lash out

A child stands on the grounds of the Casa Pacifica Centers for Children and Families in Camarillo (Ventura County)
A child stands on the grounds of the Casa Pacifica Centers for Children and Families in Camarillo (Ventura County)
Iilana Panich-Linsman for the SF Chronicle

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California's foster children are some of the state's most vulnerable people, and the trauma out of being separated from loved ones means they may develop emotional problems.

So some might act out.

In certain shelters and group homes around the state, that's led to children as young as 8 being arrested.

In 2015 and 2016, at least 485 arrests, citations and detainments were made for alleged criminal offenses by foster children in shelters and group homes.

"When you are in pain, in anguish and in desperation, and the treatment of the foster care system is jail, handcuffs and arrest, in the moment it's only worsening your trauma and your crisis," says Karen de Sá, investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

She joins Take Two about her latest story, "Fostering Failure: how shelters criminalize hundreds of children."

Interview highlights

The setting for your latest story is the shelter and group home system for foster kids in the state. Can you describe how it works?

These are the 10 shelters in the state that children come to when they are first taken into foster care, right after they're removed from their homes by social workers.

Traditionally, they've stayed anywhere from a few hours to a few months on end.

These are places by nature where kids are very, very frightened. They're despairing and, in some cases, angry.

So they can be very tumultuous and extremely emotional environments.  

Many children might go to a shelter, but your story focuses on those who might act out. What are examples of what some of them have done that got them into trouble?

I wouldn't characterize it as "bad behavior."

I think that there is the expectation and a complete understanding that children who have not only suffered severe neglect or abuse at home, but who have had the traumatic experience of being ripped from their parents, however flawed, they're known to exhibit behaviors that can be difficult for caregivers to manage.

They can be angry, punch holes in the walls, they can fight with other kids.

But it's really something that folks who are familiar with the psychological state of children who are in this situation say is pretty predictable.  

Do experts say there is a better method of action as opposed to arrest? 

One thing is to keep kids out of group settings unless they absolutely need to be there.

Children need to be families, they need to be in homes.

If they have to be in a residential program, the response should be a mental health one and not a police one, whenever possible.

There are ways to deescalate behaviors and explosive incidents. There's ways to talk kids down and to come at them with a soothing approach as opposed to a punitive and aggressive approach. 

One foster youth you talked with, Brandy Olalia, had an emotional blowup at age 15 while in a group home. She was arrested and sent to juvenile hall. Ultimately charges were dropped against her. Brandy's 20 now. How did that incident affect her?

When she got arrested and spent a month in jail, it made her more angry, more bitter, more terrified.

Five years later, every time she talks about this, she's really wracked with this terror of this experience.

As fragile as Brandy is, all Californians should hope that we would treat with her with care and loving kindness instead of the opposite. 

The practice of calling the police is not a practice every shelter employs. Some have only a handful of incidents over the years. Why is there a disparity and not a standard practice among all these providers?

I think it has to do a lot with the culture and training and orientation.

Is the default to call 911? Or is the default, let's rap around with some effective behavioral interventions?

It sounds really clunky, but it's really ways to use the knowledge we have, now, about how trauma impacts behavior to help the children through these crises.

Listen to the full interview with de Sá by using the blue audio player above.