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Rethinking How To Care For California's Most Troubled Children

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Also here in California, the legislature is considering a massive overhaul of the state's group home system for troubled children. In the most recent issue of California Sunday Magazine, ProPublica's Joaquin Sapien tells the story of one group home and one child who went through this troubled system. The child is Alex Barschat-Li.

JOAQUIN SAPIEN: Alex is a pretty impressive kid for a variety of reasons, some troubling, some not.

RATH: Shortly after Alex turned five, his mother began to notice worrying behaviors in her son.

SAPIEN: He would reach for knives and other instruments in the house to hurt himself. He was easily aggravated and would hurl himself quite violently at whatever it was that was annoying him. By the time he was 11 years old, the police had been to his home about 11 times, and he'd been in on seven separate psychiatric holds. And it was then that he entered California's group care system.

RATH: In 2010, Alex's mother made the excruciating decision to give up custody of her son for his own protection. Alex became a ward of the state. In 2011, he moved into a group home in Davis, Calif. At first, Alex did well. But then things started to come undone. A new company bought the home, and they laid off staff to save money.

SAPIEN: After that, the amount of supervision made available to these children on this campus began to steadily decline. At the same time, more and more children are beginning to realize that they can go off the campus into the community of Davis. And so large groups of children began leaving, sometimes for days at a time. They were living in a local park. And the staff were very concerned about this, but they weren't allowed to physically stop them from leaving. They needed to shadow these children, persuade them to come back, call the police if they were in danger and only physically restrain in the most serious circumstances.

RATH: And the police are being called fairly routinely out there. Can you talk about what was going on with local law enforcement?

SAPIEN: There were more than 500 calls to the Davis Police Department in the course of the first six months of 2013. And it got worse and worse up until late May, when an 11-year-old girl told a counselor that she had been raped by two boys from the home in a local park. And that was kind of the final straw. That's when police decided they were going to go into the campus and finally put into motion the closure of this home.

RATH: So this group home that you write about in the piece, they're closed, but there's still a lot that's being put on the group home system. Have you talked to people who have any idea of how to fix this problem?

SAPIEN: Well, it's a very challenging population. But right now, there is what's been described to me as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the system of care in California. There's a reform report that has been the basis of several bills pending in the state legislature that would essentially overhaul the system.

RATH: So far, those bills have not made it to the governor's desk. As for Alex, he had been one of those children leaving campus and sleeping in parks. When the home closed in 2013, Alex struggled. He was sent to four different facilities. But recently, things have gotten better. He graduated from a group home and is living with his parents again, attending a local high school.

SAPIEN: I can tell just in the six months that I've gotten to know him that he does seem to have stabilized. If anyone can overcome that kind of adversity, it's going to be someone like him.

RATH: Joaquin Sapien of ProPublica. You can read his piece about the group home system in California in the latest issue of California Sunday Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.