Juvenile delinquents will be placed in a new, private East County program despite fears that fire safety at its facility is inadequate, San Diego County supervisors decided Wednesday.
The supervisors voted 3-1, with George Bailey dissenting and Susan Golding absent, to add the Maheo Corp. program for boys to the list of county-approved youth rehabilitation centers.
The vote came after the presiding judge of Juvenile Court said she thought the youths would be in no more danger at Maheo than in the county’s overcrowded Juvenile Hall or at California Youth Authority camps.
“In weighing liability, I take into consideration that when I send a young person to the California Youth Authority they have a very good chance of being stabbed and sodomized, but sometimes I have to take that risk,” Judge Judith McConnell told the board.
“And when I place a boy in the (juvenile) hall, I know there is risk to that boy to be in the hall, a grave risk. I frankly think this (at Maheo) is a minimal risk and the kind of risk that has to be taken.”
McConnell said Maheo would be a good local alternative to out-of-state programs, including the controversial VisionQuest wilderness program, which uses wagon trains, cross-country treks and physical punishment to rehabilitate delinquent boys.
Maheo, to be run by a former VisionQuest staff member, will emphasize intensive athletic skills training under the theory that “if you bring the body along, the mind will follow,” Executive Director Bob Brooks said.
Brooks said Maheo will take 30 boys to start and may expand to accept as many as 60 delinquents within 18 months. The boys, ages 13 to 17, will be chosen from among those who have failed to respond to other programs. Maheo will receive $2,095 a month from the state for each youth and could begin receiving boys today.
Although Maheo has a provisional license from the state, approval from the Board of Supervisors was still needed before county youths could be placed at the home.
Brooks said he had expected the final approval to be routine until Bailey on Tuesday questioned the fire safety of a 60-foot by 65-foot wooden building that will serve as dormitory and kitchen for 30 boys and the program’s staff.
Because the facility is on the Manzanita Indian Reservation, near Live Oak Springs, state and local fire standards do not apply to construction. But the state Department of Social Services gave Maheo a license to operate on condition that the facility meet state fire safety requirements within six months.
State fire inspectors visited the building Tuesday and found that it lacked a proper fire wall, and that its four battery-powered home smoke alarms were inadequate for a building of its size and construction.
David Janssen, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer, said he and County Counsel Lloyd Harmon recommended that the board withhold its approval until the fire safety changes were made.
Janssen said the county would be liable for damages if the youths were injured in a fire after being sent there by officials who knew of the risk. Bailey agreed.
“Once we know a problem exists, if we then approve it without having the problem solved, we’re liable,” he said.
But in hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, the board was told that Maheo was ready to open and would go out of business if not allowed to receive children immediately. Brooks said the program had hired 10 professional staff members and bought $3,000 in food in anticipation of opening Wednesday.
He said the program will have a staff member on duty throughout the night to provide security. He said the same employee would watch for fires and could wake the boys in an emergency.
Tom Bailey, president of Maheo, said that the company planned to install fire walls soon after opening. He said the work would be done by the youths as part of their vocational training.
Bailey, no relation to the supervisor, also said a fire pump truck would be stationed at the site because the location is not served by any fire department.
Supervisor Williams said he thought the 24-hour watch would be just as effective as other, mechanical fire protection measures.
“We went several million years . . . before we developed fire detection systems,” Williams said. “We can live without it.”