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School can often be a safe haven for students. But for the 69 young people who attend and live at San Pasqual Academy, a residential education campus for high-school aged foster youth, it’s also a home. The Escondido site currently serves as a group home for foster kids struggling to find permanent placement and those who value the safety and autonomy the site provides.
But state regulators are calling on the county to close the site in October and move those students to other homes, preferably ones with families.
A 2018 federal law banned the use of funds to pay for facilities like San Pasqual Academy’s beginning in October of this year, leaving states like California to overhaul their foster care systems. San Diego County’s Child Welfare Services and the state signed a three-year agreement in December 2018 to allow San Pasqual Academy to run as a pilot program through December 2021 after a state law eliminated the use of licensed group homes as a placement option for foster youth passed.
Now that time’s up on the agreement, the state is calling the county to close the school in October – two months earlier than expected.
Gregory E. Rose, deputy director of the state Department of Social Services, wrote a letter to Kim Giardina, the director of the county’s Child Welfare Services agency, notifying her the Academy’s pilot program would end effectively Oct. 1 and requesting the county transition the foster youth participating in the pilot into “suitable placements.”
“Given the overall reduction in the county’s foster care population and the very limited number of appropriate referrals, it appears that continuation of the pilot is no longer viable or prudent,” Rose wrote.
Some alumni, students, and community members want the site to stay open. More than 8,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the closure.
“Yes, it will be easy for the county to put us students into foster homes and family but would that actually be the safest option? In my opinion, it will not be the safest option due to the fact that a lot of foster homes don’t always feed the kids well, sometimes don’t even buy us clothes,” a student who created the petition wrote.
Some people who signed the petition underscored the impact the closure would have on the young people who live there and the future children who could take advantage of its services. Others shared their personal experiences at the school.
“As a volunteer at San Pasqual Academy,” one person wrote, “I have seen first-hand how it saves the lives of foster teens … SPA is a family. Its benefits to the community far outweigh the costs to run it. To close this valuable asset is short sighted and cruel.”
Community advocates have also weighed in on the decision. We the People Escondido, an advocacy group, called on supporters to email San Diego County Board Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and request he “stop the relocation of funding and allow San Pasqual Academy to continue to receive funds from the county to stay open to save these 69 kids.”
On Feb. 28, Fletcher responded to the school’s supporters in a letter that said the county had no role in the loss of the state license to operate on the site. He also said he supports requesting that the closure be pushed back nine months to allow more time for graduating classes to plan for a smooth transition, and acknowledged the site can’t run in its current format under state and federal laws.
“In the rare cases when we have to protect children by removing them from their parents, we know it must be a priority to keep youth in their neighborhoods, schools, with trusted loved one and being provided the support needed. There are many efforts underway and more to bring this vision to fruition,” Fletcher wrote.
Simone Hidds-Monroe, the youth services associate director at the nonprofit Just in Time For Foster Youth and an alumni of San Pasqual Academy, told Voice of San Diego that the kids who live there feel like they haven’t had any say in the decision and have been given a 10-month eviction notice to figure out the rest of their lives amid a pandemic and housing crisis. She said when she attended the academy from 2004 to 2009 with her siblings, she wasn’t looking for a new mother or father but a place where she and her siblings could be together and focus on opportunity.
There are sibling sets and marginalized LGBTQ youth at the academy who fear they won’t be placed in a safe environment, she said.
“The youth have shared that they’re terrified,” Hidds-Monroe said. “They feel like they’ve been forgotten and because it’s 70 of them they feel insignificant. San Pasqual allows them to be kids and allows them to get the emotional and mental health support instead of focusing on the identity of ‘Oh, I’m a foster kid.”
The Union Tribune editorial board on Feb. 25 described the closure as a “turning point for foster care in San Diego County.”
“Yes,” the board continued, “the academy has seen a number of children go on to lead productive lives in its 20-year history. And yes, county supervisors who created the Escondido site have reason to tout its accomplishments — though the county’s overall record with foster students is replete with mismanagement and worse. But experts agree that placing foster children with families is better for them than group homes.”
The county’s Health and Human Services Agency doesn’t have specific details on next steps, Craig Sturak a spokesman for the agency, told Voice of San Diego. “We are working on that now.”