Santa Clara County plans to close receiving center for vulnerable children
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors met Tuesday. Photo by Katie Lauer.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday will consider a complete overhaul of services the county provides to children who have been removed from their homes — often because of abuse or neglect — before they are placed with responsible family members or foster parents.

Supervisors are expected to vote to phase out the existing model — a process that is already underway — and implement a decentralized system of wrap-around services coupled with a commitment to immediately place children in permanent housing.

For the past decade, children removed from their homes in emergency situations were taken to the county’s Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center, or RAIC.

The intake center was never meant to be a residential facility, though it is equipped with beds and a kitchen. Ideally, children are only at the RAIC for a matter of hours — just long enough for their needs to be evaluated and arrangements for long-term care to be made. Still, because it is open 24 hours a day and placing children in permanent housing isn’t always easy, the center has become a de facto shelter for teenagers who refuse to live with relatives or foster parents, even though staff are not trained for it and it is not part of the RAIC’s mission.

Those kids wind up living at the center for weeks or months — making it impossible for the RAIC to serve its purpose, to quickly place children in need with family members or foster care. Instead, supervisors say the out-of-control youth terrorize staff and younger children and bring drugs and violence to what is supposed to be a safe place for children who have been removed from a dangerous environment.

To Supervisor Dave Cortese, there’s a bitter irony in what has become of the center. Cortese said the county opened the RAIC in 2009 because the county’s childrens shelter had become dangerous and was ultimately shuttered.

“The RAIC has sort of morphed into the old shelter system,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “We slipped right back into the same pattern. It’s history repeating itself and it is so unfortunate.”

Cortese, along with Supervisor Cindy Chavez, two weeks ago proposed an immediate moratorium on placing any more children at the center. The supervisors could vote to approve it Tuesday.

“What’s going on there, really can’t go on for another day,” Cortese told his fellow supervisors. He urged the board to make “an absolute commitment to immediate placement” for children in need of care.

The first step in the direction of a new plan is already underway, according to a staff report issued last week. The report says 88 children were removed from their homes between Sept. 30 and Nov. 8 and 78 of those were placed in permanent housing within 24 hours. Only ten children were taken to the RAIC during that time, though it’s unclear how many are at the intake center now.

The board on Tuesday will consider options that would allow the RAIC to be phased out of use as soon as Jan. 2020, regardless of whether it has a permanent solution ready to take its place. But experts in the field of child abuse warned against closing the RAIC without having an alternative placement system in place — saying it would only make matters worse.

“A move away from placing children into the receiving center is definitely a move in the right direction, on that, we support the board fully,” said Stephen Betts, of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice Commission. “But such a move can only be accomplished with planning and the development of new resources. Imposing a moratorium without a suitable, sustainable alternative is not a solution.”

Chavez agreed the county should have a plan for after the RAIC is closed, but wants to call attention to the problems there.

“We have not had a sense of urgency about this since I got here and part of the reason we are asking for something so drastic is because there have been a lot of fits and starts in terms of how we are trying to support these children,” said Chavez.

Still, another expert warned that there would always be a need for receiving, assessment and intake services — even if the county moves to a decentralized model.

“In reality, there is no magical solution,” said Steven Baron, with the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Santa Clara County. “There will always be a need for a receiving and assessment center because there will be days and nights when you will not have places to put these kids. And you will have days and nights where the people who are taking care of these kids are saying they can’t do it anymore.”

Ultimately, the supervisors agreed with Baron, voting unanimously to ask staff to come up with a comprehensive plan to close the RAIC and develop a new system for providing those services.

“If we don’t have another plan in place, that puts kids at risk and opens another very dangerous situation,” said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg.

Supervisors and staff agreed that moving toward a new plan should deliberate, but also swift.

“We have to be careful in our approach — as we have heard from experts in the field — but we completely understand that the RAIC ultimately will need to be closed,” said County Executive Jeff Smith. “And we agree that the RAIC model is no longer viable.”

The Board of Supervisors will meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the county government center, 70 W. Hedding Street in San Jose.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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