Inside a small dorm on a neatly manicured campus in La Verne, two teenage girls were flitting between rooms.
One adjusted a tight-fitting tank top over her chest and checked her reflection in the mirror. The other danced to Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” as it played from a cellphone.
The teens were getting ready to run away from a temporary shelter for foster youths.
Just before 9:30 p.m. they broke into a run and headed for the campus entrance. A security guard and another staff member followed.
“Why’re you getting so close? Just stay right there, please,” the younger one begged the guard as he caught up. “My ride’s coming.”
A few minutes later, a silver pickup truck pulled over. The girls quickly got inside and took off. A staff member called the police.
It’s a scene that recurs regularly at the David and Margaret Youth and Family Services transitional shelter care facility in La Verne.
The girls are among 4,200 young people who have stayed in such a facility since March 2016. That is when L.A. County shut down its emergency “welcome centers,” where foster children with nowhere else to go could stay for a day or less, and opened three-day shelters run by private providers.
Some kids are entering the foster system for the first time. For those, the 72-hour facilities generally serve as intended — a temporary stop on the way to a longer-term home.
But many have cycled in and out of foster placements for years, sometimes getting kicked out, “AWOLing,” or landing in jail in between. Some have histories of substance abuse, mental illness or sex work. Others are pregnant or have children of their own.
“These are kids who have been in the system a long time [and] usually have lots of issues,” said Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of L.A. County’s Juvenile Court. “It’s sort of unrealistic to think … we’re going to put them into a transitional shelter for 72 hours and figure out how to stabilize them and figure out a placement where we have confidence that they’re going to stay.”
As a result, some young people end up staying for weeks or even months.
The shelters are normally closed to the public, but The Times obtained a court order allowing a reporter and photographer to spend time at David and Margaret over the course of several weeks. The order required The Times to refer to minors only by their first and last initials.
Back at the cottage that night, M.H., a pregnant 16-year-old with a baby face and braces, was fuming. Her wallet, cellphone and some jewelry were missing.
“My [stuff] is constantly getting stolen,” she complained. A few days earlier, some of her baby’s clothes had also disappeared.
M.H. asked to call police. Then she went into the kitchen. As she sliced a cantaloupe, she became increasingly agitated.
“I’m trying to stay goddamn calm,” she said.
But she couldn’t. She clenched her fists and screamed. She punched a TV and knocked over a side table. Staff members moved out of her way, even as they attempted to calm her.
M.H. grabbed eggs out of the refrigerator and smashed them on the carpet. A minute later, she stormed out and headed for the gate.
“I don’t want this … no more,” she said. “I’m gonna AWOL to the police station. I’d rather be in … jail than here.”
M.H. had been at David and Margaret, on and off, for more than a month. Police had come to the facility on her account at least three times in two weeks.
Case workers had yet to find a long-term placement for her. Few homes accept young people who are pregnant or have children, and M.H.’s history of aggression compounded the difficulty.
Finding long-term placement is difficult
The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services has long struggled to find homes for young people like M.H., trying out a variety of emergency shelters over the years.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it sent some of its most disturbed young people to MacLaren Children’s Center. It closed in 2003 in the wake of lawsuits over violent conditions and the county’s failure to provide adequate mental health services.
Then there was the emergency response command post — a Children and Family Services office where foster kids often spent the night because they had nowhere else to go.
Later the department opened two “welcome centers” — one for younger children and one for those 12 and older. The centers, unlicensed facilities on the campus of L.A. County-USC Medical Center, routinely housed youths for longer than a day, the maximum time allowed.
In 2015, the state sued. L.A. County reached a settlement with the California Department of Social Services and agreed to contract with licensed nonprofit agencies to provide 72-hour housing. The maximum annual cost of the contracts was $12.3 million.
The new facilities opened in March 2016. They are supposed to close by 2019 as part of a statewide effort to phase out group care in favor of more home-like settings.
The majority of young people stay at the facilities less than three days. But more than 800 children and teens — 20% of the total — have stayed longer, according to Children and Family Services data for the period covering March 2016 through October 2017.
Almost half of the “overstays” took place at David and Margaret, which houses teenage girls under 21, including pregnant young women and those who have been victims of sex trafficking.
People who are familiar with this population say the numbers are not entirely surprising.
“The [facilities] are different, but the real problem is the same: What do we do with clients who can’t be placed right away?” said Maire Mullaly, an attorney who represents some of the youths in temporary shelters. “The bottom line is the placements aren’t there.”
Each stay longer than 72 hours in a 30-day period is a violation and must be reported to the state.
Michael Weston, a social services spokesman, said the state agency is aware that some children are staying beyond the limit but has not issued any citations or penalties.
“These are licensed facilities that do have regulations and standards of care,” Weston said. “Overstays are something that are of concern, but at the same time we’re trying to identify the best-quality placement for these children. It’s a very slow process.”
Maria Ramiu, an attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, said the overstay data indicate how little progress the county’s child welfare agency has made toward phasing out the use of group shelters and finding long-term, stable homes for youth.
“DCFS is not fulfilling its core mission … to ensure the health and safety of kids and to ensure permanency for them,” she said.
‘Here all we do is emergency’
David and Margaret offers the girls who stay there a fresh set of clothes, a shower, meals and a bed. Most don’t attend school. Staff members lead arts and crafts activities, intervene in fights and provide one-on-one counseling.
Department social workers coordinate transportation to medical and court appointments, interviews with foster homes and visits with therapists.
“Here all we do is emergency,” said Nick Tran, the program manager at David and Margaret’s temporary shelter. “It’s difficult to work toward any long-term goals.”
That can be a problem, Tran said, because foster and group homes often want young people to show signs of stability — being clean of drugs, staying out of fights, not running away — before accepting them.
Even with caring and patient staff, that’s a tall order for some of the most traumatized kids.
Diamond Hyman, a 19-year-old who said she has been in the system since age 3, has a history of anger issues and drug abuse, including methamphetamine use. She left foster care at age 18 but ended up homeless and asked the department to reopen her case, she said. (Under California law, young people may remain in foster care until they turn 21.)
At David and Margaret, where she had been staying for almost a month, Hyman had borrowed a dozen books from the library, on topics that included entrepreneurship and theology. She was upbeat and full of plans but was stymied at every turn by her own behavior.
She said she was going to attend school on campus but never went. She applied for transitional housing but was turned down. She smoked pot with another teen at the facility. In a moment of frustration she punched her hand through a window; a few days later she got into a fight.
“I know the difference between right and wrong,” Hyman said, “but when I decide to do the right thing, that feels uncomfortable to me.”
Hyman hoped to be taken in by a foster mom and dreamed of going to college one day, but she was pessimistic about the effects of staying in a shelter with other severely troubled youths.
“We are traumatic kids in a traumatic place,” she said. “Horrible things are going to happen.”
Other young people refuse services, turn down placements or simply run away.
In an extreme case, one teen stayed at the facility 70 times, for a total of 273 days, between March 2016 and June 2017.
Charles Rich, executive director of David and Margaret, said it’s frustrating to see young people come and go so frequently.
“If we’re not able to hold them accountable and get them the services they need, then these kids could easily end up dead or in jail,” he said.
Trying a new approach
In July 2016, Children and Family Services began a pilot program to address the needs of “overstay youth.” It includes hand-picked case coordinators who follow them for up to six months after placement, intensive mental health services, and ongoing team meetings with children’s attorneys, social workers and mental health professionals.
Michael Ross, a Children and Family Services administrator for the temporary facilities, said that out of the pilot program’s 31 active cases through May, only four remained in a temporary shelter or ran away. “These are kids that don’t come back,” he said.
In September the department began another pilot, in which young people and social workers appear before a judge every two weeks to discuss progress on finding a placement.
Administrators say the effort is helping reduce lengths of stay, but runaways remain a problem. It’s too soon to tell whether the placements will provide lasting homes.
Nash, the former judge who now heads L.A. County’s Office of Child Protection, an oversight body, called the pilot programs a “Band-Aid.”
“The long-term approach is going back to the front door of when kids enter the system — how we assess those kids, how we plan to move forward with those kids,” he said.
In the meantime, the county and contract providers like David and Margaret can simply take care of kids who walk in the door.
After M.H.’s outburst, she returned to the cottage and staff members moved her into a room that had more privacy.
Shortly after that, a Children and Family Services worker dropped off a new teenager wrapped in a blanket and wearing heavy eye makeup, a thin T-shirt and short jean shorts.
“You need anything — clothes, hygiene products?” an employee asked her.
“Everything,” the teen said.
She received a full kit — toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, soap, socks, underwear, shorts, shirt, slippers — and was left alone to shower and settle in.
An hour later the other two remaining girls at the shelter took off, picked up by a Lexus. About 1 a.m., a runaway from earlier in the day returned.
Staff members settled in for a long night. They filled out new missing-person reports, canceled others and did laundry.
And they waited for the next arrival.