San Pasqual Academy Is Still Fighting for Its Life

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San Pasqual Academy Is Still Fighting for Its Life

Community members are celebrating another extension staving off closure, but said that county leaders need to work harder to keep the school open long term. They believe the facility provides a crucial option for foster youth who don’t have stable homes to live in.

San Pasqual Academy / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Pasqual Academy can keep its doors open a little longer but its ultimate fate is still unclear, and it’s causing turmoil between the school community and state and county leaders. The young people who live at the boarding school for foster youth in Escondido don’t know whether they’re going to be able to live and attend school there next summer, or if the next year is going to be a long transitioning process out of the campus.

The site is facing a looming closure as a result of changes to state and federal laws.

Last week, the state Department of Social Services agreed to let the academy stay open until June 2022 if the county agrees to stop sending foster kids there and assists with transitional planning for each student, “specifically, reporting on the status of family finding, engagement and support and permanency planning,” among other conditions.

Community members are celebrating the possible extension, but said that county leaders need to work harder to keep the school open long-term and push back on the state’s ask to not send new foster youth there. They believe the facility provides a crucial option for foster youth who are mistreated or abused in the foster system or don’t have stable homes to live in.

The state’s latest move “disregards the youth who live on this campus. It’s insensitive,” said Shane Harris, a local activist and government affairs liaison for San Pasqual Academy, who is also an alum of the campus.

The county has until May 28 to respond to the state’s proposal, according to the state’s letter. If county leaders sign the agreement in its current form, there’s little chance the school will survive, Tia Moore, the director of the academy, told Voice of San Diego. “There’s no sustainability,” she said.

Moore said with just 58 students on campus after the school’s upcoming June graduation and no new incoming students, she will have to start laying off staff and the school will be forced to pare down services. Moore, Harris and other school leaders plan to begin negotiating the state’s condition to not send new foster youth to San Pasqual if the extension is granted with state and county leaders this week.

A 2015 state law sought to reduce the use of so-called congregate care facilities in favor of home-based family care. And the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, passed in 2018, banned the use of certain federal funds to pay for facilities categorized as congregate care, like San Pasqual Academy, beginning this October, leaving states like California to overhaul their foster care systems.

San Diego County bypassed the state law when it signed a three-year agreement with the state in December 2018 to allow the academy to run as a pilot program through December 2021.

But since the number of foster youth in the county decreased this year, the state’s deputy director of the Department of Social Services wrote in a letter to the county’s Child Welfare Services agency, the pilot program will end sooner than planned, on Oct.1.  The state requested that the county transition the foster youth participating in the pilot into “suitable placements.” In January, there were 2,068 children 17 and under in out-of-home care, Craig Sturak, a spokesman for the county told Voice of San Diego in March.

In the state’s new proposed agreement, the school can stay open until June 2022 and the county can continue to claim federal funding for the “placing agency’s administrative costs” it incurs for the foster youth currently there.

Federal funding for San Pasqual accounts for approximately 24 percent of the site’s total budget, according to the state’s letter to the county.

The thrust of the argument behind state and federal law changes in seeking to eliminate places like San Pasqual is that the best place for a child is in a home with a family, and group and congregate settings are less ideal. Supporters of those measures have argued moving foster youth into homes can reduce a child’s time in the child welfare system and create permanency for them – and that federal funding should be pumped into those efforts. Group homes and congregate care options and are often used for foster youth who need high levels of care and supervision for a short term.

Group home providers serving foster children were required to obtain short-term residential therapeutic program licenses under the new state law. To receive federal funding for new foster youth, San Pasqual would need to convert to a short-term residential therapeutic program or operate a group home that serves pregnant and parenting teens, independent living for nonminor dependents or commercially sexually exploited youth, the state’s letter reads.

San Pasqual’s supporters, however, counter that the facility is a unique education institution for young people who don’t feel like they are accepted in family settings, don’t fit in with a foster family or who find more support in a community-based living situation. They don’t believe it’s fair that the facility is categorized the same way as a group home or congregant care facility.

“The site is one of a kind and it’s rare,” said County Supervisor Jim Desmond. “It is sort of congregate care, but it’s different.”

San Pasqual Academy sits on 238 acres and looks like a college campus, with classrooms, living spaces, recreation fields, behavioral health programs, financial literacy programs and other resources. Leaders at the academy encourage students to finish their high school education and to continue through college.

“Of the youth who were at least 18 years old when discharged from the academy, 92% of them graduated with a high school diploma or GED, which greatly exceeds California’s high school graduation/GED rates for foster youth,” according to a 2020 UC Davis report.

The County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed in March to try and keep the academy open past next year. Desmond said he’s trying to work with congressional delegates to get a waiver that excludes San Pasqual Academy from the Family First Prevention Services Act and continue funding the site, said Desmond.

Desmond said he’s glad the state granted an extension because it gives the county more time to work with the federal government to keep the facility open long-term, but he’s not happy about the state’s condition not to place any new foster youth there.

A spokesman for Supervisor Joel Anderson said Anderson is pleased about the extension but would like to learn more to fully understand the impacts of the state’s conditions and what they mean for the future of the school. Anderson was in the state Legislature in 2015 and voted for the bill aimed at phasing out group homes, but it’s unclear whether he had a conversation with San Pasqual Academy leaders about its needs at the time.

“Our office is in the process of exploring a variety of options with county staff and other stakeholders,” his spokesman wrote in an email.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher has said the county needs to follow state and federal law and could use the estimated $6.4 million in funding it’s spending to support San Pasqual to make the county’s foster system better for all foster youth by improving or expanding therapeutic foster care services and training older children in independent living skills. In March, Fletcher said the board should pursue the possibility of keeping the site open for the current students even if it’s unlikely federal and state legislators would agree to it.

“Going forward we will continue to thoughtfully explore the options with San Pasqual Academy while being aware of the state and federal requirements and our obligation to provide care for every child,” Fletcher wrote in a statement.

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Seventy-two kids currently attend and live at San Pasqual Academy. Sixteen alumni (many of whom returned to alumni housing during the pandemic, including five single mothers) and 14 grandparents (who live at the site for a reduced rate) also live there, Moore said. About 48 percent of the young people who attend school there are Black, about 30 percent are Latino, and many come from southeastern San Diego and other low-income neighborhoods where fewer people are able to take in foster children, Moore told Voice of San Diego. Other students who attend the school are Asian, White and biracial, she said.

Harris, who is Black, grew up in San Diego’s child welfare system and was a student at San Pasqual Academy for over two years after being taken out of a foster home because of negligence and abuse when he was 16. The county was not able to retain a foster home for him and San Pasqual Academy was the only place to go, he said.

Natasha Strain, an alum of the campus, works as a childcare worker and supervisor at the facility. In the early 2000s, the county placed Strain at San Pasqual Academy after her foster parents at the time kicked her out.

Before that, Strain, who is Black, was mistreated, abused by previous foster parents and separated from her sisters in the foster system, she said. She said she felt culturally misunderstood in a home with an Asian foster mother who did not know what to do with her and her sisters’ hair. “We didn’t brush our hair for a week,” she said.

Moore said one of the benefits of San Pasqual is Black and Latino kids in particular are able to connect with students and staff members from similar backgrounds.

Strain said when she was placed at San Pasqual she wasn’t sure what her experience at the academy would be like, and her experience in foster care made her doubt her own ability to finish high school or attend college. She also was able to be around other foster students who looked like her and could relate to her experience in the foster system.

The people and resources at the academy eventually made her realize her potential, she said, and she graduated high school there and college at CSU San Marcos. She’s now using her college degree to help students at San Pasqual realize they can achieve their aspirations for the future and reminds them often they have a support system there.

Strain said the potential closure has thrown a wrench in students’ idea of stability. Some of them have been at the site with other foster kids, house parents who supervise them and teachers since sixth grade and planned to graduate from the school.

“A lot of them are just mad. They’re saying there’s no point in listening because they’re going to close this place. Some of them are calling old foster moms saying, ‘Will you take me back?’ or ‘I’m just going to run away from my foster home because that’s what I did before,’” Strain said.

San Pasqual Academy is also known for keeping together siblings who might otherwise be separated in the system. Simone Hidds-Monroe, who attended and lived at the school with her three older siblings and who now works as a youth services associate director at the nonprofit Just in Time For Foster Youth, previously told Voice of San Diego that many siblings pairs are scared they will be separated if the site closes.

The youth who identify as LGBTQ who she works with told her they are scared they won’t be placed into a safe environment, Hidds-Monroe said. Nine percent of students identify as LGBTQ and 21 sets of siblings living at the academy, Moore said.

In an open letter to the community in March, the students at the academy wrote, “We are afraid of the unknown. We are scared of the horrible experiences we endured before SPA becoming our reality, again. Being tossed around the foster care system for the rest of our teenage lives, having us fend for ourselves, being taken away from good people who we trust, love, and need. You are putting our lives in jeopardy.”

Strain said a closure of San Pasqual Academy would affect a whole community, including staff members who work there and will lose their jobs, and alumni who regularly return to the campus and rely on it for services like help with college coursework, financial literacy and housing.

“I don’t think people are thinking about the long-term effects on the foster community,” Strain said. “You wouldn’t do this to rich kids. You wouldn’t do this to Escondido Adventist. You’re going to hurt a whole bunch of kids and a community of people who are already low down there in the world and told to build themselves up. It’s their support system.”

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