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There’s a new phase in the movement to keep San Pasqual Academy, a boarding school for foster youth in Escondido, open: A group of nine residents, alumni and staff is suing the state and the county for moving to shut down the facility.
The group is seeking to secure the facility’s future. It’s asking the court to order the California Department of Social Services to create a unique licensing and funding category to allow it to stay open past June 2022 and continue to serve foster youth across the county. Kimberley Johnson, the director of the California Department of Social Services; Nick Macchione, the director of the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency; and the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency are named as defendants in the suit.
“Without judicial relief, hundreds of residents and alumni who sought the institution as a permanent placement will be forced to find a new place to call home,” the lawsuit reads.
The group claims that the state’s attempt to shut down the academy is a violation of equal protection guarantees in the California Constitution, the Foster Youth Bill of Rights and Continuum of Care Reform Act.
The lawsuit argues that the last of those exempted San Pasqual from the wider foster care system reforms of the time. But “after the law was passed, officials with the school began negotiating with the state and county about developing a unique licensing category, which is why a pilot program was adopted,” the Union-Tribune reported. “Those conversations led to proposals about how the school could operate, but the state informed the county through a letter that it was terminating the program.”
Sarah Sweeney, a San Diego County spokesperson, told the Union-Tribune in an email that officials are exploring options for the San Pasqual Academy campus with a focus on supporting foster youth.
“We are working diligently to ensure a smooth, trauma-informed transition toward a future where as many youth as possible live in a loving and supportive environment, while having access to services that help them grow and thrive,” she wrote.
Jason Montiel, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego on Wednesday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
San Pasqual’s supporters have argued that the site is a crucial part of San Diego’s foster system because it provides support space for marginalized youth who don’t fit into foster families, or who find more support in a community-based living situation.
“Such a result is not just morally reprehensible; it is unlawful,” the lawsuit reads.
The school’s fate has been in flux since the state and federal governments passed laws aiming to transition away from group and congregate facilities for foster youth. Supporters of San Pasqual, including San Diego County Board Supervisor Jim Desmond, have said the facility should be treated as unique because it isn’t the same as a group home.
In 2018, San Diego County bypassed state law seeking to reduce the use of so-called congregate care facilities in favor of home-based family care and to ban the use of certain federal funds to pay for facilities categorized as congregate care, like San Pasqual Academy, when it signed a three-year agreement with the state 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.
Facing pressure from San Pasqual Academy supporters, county officials signed an agreement with the state to keep the school open until next summer. The deal extends the facility’s future, but the county has agreed to stop sending new foster kids there, and to assist in transitioning students out of the school and into permanent placements, hopefully with families. The county’s decision means that the kids and alumni who currently live there have a guaranteed home and school at San Pasqual until the end of next June.
There are just 52 students attending school at San Pasqual following a graduation ceremony this summer.
The school has the capacity to accommodate more than 100 foster youth, Tia Moore, its director, said at a press conference Tuesday. Moore, who lives on the campus, previously told Voice of San Diego that the school can’t continue providing the services it typically offers with fewer students, and she’ll have to let faculty and staff go from their positions. “There’s no sustainability,” she said.
Natasha Strain, an alum of the campus who works as a childcare worker and supervisor at the facility, is one of the plaintiffs listed in the suit.
Strain previously told VOSD that the potential closure has thrown a wrench in the 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 they planned to graduate from the school, she said.
At the press conference, Charles LiMandri, an attorney representing the group, said keeping San Pasqual open shouldn’t be controversial or political.
Yet, the lawsuit puts blame on the County Board of Supervisors for not supporting the program, and specifically names Chairman Nathan Fletcher for choosing not to push the state to reclassify the facility, and invest county dollars to keep the program open.
“Everyone wants to help our kids do better and this is a program that works, so this is something we should all be able to get behind,” LiMandri said.
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 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 previous statement.