The Kenwood Press
News: 02/15/2017

State’s new vision for VOM Children’s Center

Center transitioning from longer-term to 10-day shelter

Sarah C. Phelps

The Valley of the Moon Children’s Center is in the middle of a major transition, caught in the crosshairs of an overhaul to the state foster care system, which took effect on Jan. 1.

The Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in Oct. 2015, is a comprehensive reform effort that changes placement and treatment options for kids in the California child welfare system. CCR mandates a move away from the use of long-term group home care by increasing youth placement in foster family settings and by transforming existing group home care into places where youth who are not ready to live with families can receive short-term, intensive treatment. CCR also aims to improve the placement assessment process and decrease the length of time children and youth spend in temporary foster care.

The main underpinning of CCR is that “every child deserves to feel safe, wanted and loved in a family setting,” said Leslie Winters, section manager for Valley of the Moon Children’s Center (VOMCC). VOMCC, licensed as a 30-day “emergency shelter,” is now transitioning to a 10-day “Temporary Shelter Care Facility” under the new state legislation. This means VOMCC will move away from a model of raising kids in a group setting to one of a short-term crisis stabilization center. “The aim is to get them into a family as soon as possible, with a lens on guardianship and adoption,” said Winters.

VOMCC takes pride in providing a home-like facility for kids removed from their own homes because of things like abuse or neglect. The shelter currently operates 24/7 with a capacity of 60, although the average number of children there at any one time is closer to 34. VOMCC serves ages 6-17. Although classified as a 30-day shelter, the average stay over the past year has been between 50-60 days. “So we are struggling to meet that [10-day] target,” said Winters.

Although a hard deadline hasn’t been given by the state, VOMCC hopes to transition to its new model over the next two years.

In comparison, group homes are facing greater overhauls under CCR, and must re-license as Short-term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTP) no later than Dec. 31, 2018. These STRTPs will be reserved for short-term stays of up to six months for high-needs kids, ones who might have exceptional behavior or medical challenges. One exception to CCR legislation is the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. As it doesn’t receive government funding, CCR does not affect them in the same way.

With the emphasis on getting kids into family settings, one of the biggest challenges is having enough qualified foster homes. “There’s an urgent need for the community to step up and become foster or adoptive parents,” said Winters.

In 2014, Sonoma County had the highest rate of children placed in group homes in the state. However, the county has made progress lowering that number by increasing the number of children placed with extended family, and increasing the number of approved foster care homes. The county now has 32 children living in group care, down from 119, according to Nick Honey, director of Family, Youth and Children’s Services for Sonoma County. Honey said there is an outstanding foster care community in Sonoma County, but there will always be a need for more families.

At the state level, there has been concern from some that foster family placement might not be appropriate – or safe – for all youth. “There is a need for group care still and I agree,” said Honey. “There will still be short-term residential therapy programs for those who really need it. It’s a different approach now. In the past we allowed children to stay [in group homes] because it was safe and mostly they were well taken care of, but now that should be reserved for the higher-risk kids.” Honey said the county has streamlined its foster family application process while still making sure they are doing the checks and balances to ensure the appropriate people become foster families.

While VOMCC is now focused on becoming the best 10-day shelter in the state, Winters said the center will continue to assess how it can best serve the children in its community in the long run. This could be by becoming a STRTP at a much later date, or establishing a Family Resource Center, expanding on a bigger vision to serve families, not just children, to support success.

“If our goal is a successful transition, those families need to feel nurtured and supported, too,” said Winters.

The Valley of the Moon Children’s Foundation, which was instrumental in raising the $11 million to build the new children’s center facilities which opened in 2005, is supportive of the changes.

“Children at the home will still need everything we can provide to make sure their time spent there is warm and caring,” said Foundation President Laura Colgate.

The foundation provides funding support for many of the home’s activities like art and music programs, and care services like its dental checkup program. In addition, said Colgate, the foundation continues to study ways to augment services for the current and former foster youth in Sonoma County. Recently, the foundation provided a $15,000 grant to VOICES, a foster care to independence group, for a satellite office at the VOMCC campus to help youth transition once they age out of foster care. The foundation has been involved in numerous stakeholder meetings about the CCR transition and what board member Julie Atwood called a “very large, entire-community-based transformation process to revision what Valley of the Moon Children’s Center will be.”

As part of that re-visioning, and as mandated by the new law, VOMCC is working with the International Trauma Center (which also works with Hanna Boys Center), training staff to bring more trauma-informed care to VOMCC. “We are making sure our programs offer really intensive care and that practice models are not just policy and procedure, but who we are as human beings and how we hold space for children and be present for them,” said Winters. And VOMCC has also recently partnered with Belos Cavalos in Kenwood, whose equine-based mission is to provide a safe space for survivors of trauma to heal.

Additionally, the garden program from nearby and now-closed Sierra Girls Center will be moved to the VOMCC campus in March and gardening activities made available for children there.

When the Sierra Girls Center, a residential group home for girls within the probation system, was closed in December 2016, the robust garden and culinary program pioneered by the Sierra Garden Club lost its home. Chief Probation Officer David Koch said the decision to close Sierra Girls Center wasn’t made because of CCR, but due to a low census of girls for a number of years. Sierra Girls Center had the potential to house 36 girls, but the average number was only three. The services being offered at Sierra Girls Center, while valuable, were not what many of the girls in the probation system needed so girls were being sent elsewhere, said Koch.

The Sierra Garden Club, which has many dedicated members who live in Oakmont, plans to donate the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden to VOMCC’s nutrition program and Winters said she hopes to incorporate the club’s culinary program at VOMCC as well.

While Winters admits that 10-day shelter model will be a little different for garden club volunteers, since they were used to working within a residential model at Sierra Girls Center, she is grateful to have this opportunity. “We hope we can touch the lives of kids for the short while we have them.”

The bottom line is the state is asking VOMCC to do a lot in a short amount of time. “We need more resources to do what the mandate is asking us,” said Winters. “The challenge is to find families for those youth with complex needs, with limited resources,” said Winters.

Winter’s said the goal is to have a broad cross-section of families to meet the needs of each child. That includes empty nesters and other people already committing their lives to bettering their community.

Both Honey and Winters are clear that VOMCC will not kick kids out in order to meet the state mandate. This may mean asking for extensions, said Winters, and it is unclear if the state will impose sanctions.

“At the end of the day, every child should be in a safe place,” said Honey.

Editor's Note: Valley of the Moon Children's Center is more recently called Valley of the Moon Children's Home.