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News: 12/15/2017

Fires present challenges for Valley of the Moon Children’s Home

In the wake of fires, foster families still needed

It was 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 9 when Nick Honey, division director for the county’s Family, Youth and Children’s Services, got a call that Valley of the Moon Children's Home, the county’s only 24-hour emergency shelter for abused and neglected children, was being threatened by wild fire sweeping down the Mayacamas mountains. By 4:30 a.m., the 17 children at the Pythian Road facility had been evacuated to a makeshift shelter at the division’s Apollo Way office, where a kitchen, cots and showers were available. However, as the danger to VMCH was renewed multiple times throughout the week, a more robust shelter was set up at a former group home in Santa Rosa, where children and staff stayed for almost three weeks until the fires had been contained and the VMCH had been cleaned.

Evacuation wasn’t the only threat presented to VMCH by October’s wildfires. Now, in the midst of a stand-mandated transition to move more kids – more quickly – out of group care settings and into foster and family homes, an already-tight housing market made tighter creates a challenge for would-be foster families to find or maintain housing in Sonoma County.

“[The fire] does bring up a worry, just to share that with you, in terms of housing for families,” said Honey, reporting on the status of VMCH’s transition from a 30-day “emergency shelter” to a 10-day “shelter care facility” at the Dec. 5 Board of Supervisors meeting. One of the underpinnings of the success of this transition is recruiting enough qualified foster families in the county.

Before the fires, the Family, Youth and Children’s Services was making inroads. In September, it had approved a total of 35 new homes and families who had undergone a more rigorous “resource family training,” as part of the overhaul instigated by the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) signed by Gov. Brown in 2015. As of September, it had 103 total homes, with 88 homes in the process of approval. “That’s a big change for us,” said Honey.

Honey reported that, thankfully, none of the children currently with foster families lost their homes in the October fires. However, with an estimated five percent of Sonoma County’s housing stock lost to the flames, the division is “very concerned about resource families being able to afford to live in this community and provide those kind of supports for our children.” Also, transitional-aged youth, those between the ages of 18 and 26 who have been emancipated from the foster care system, are at risk of being squeezed out of such a tight housing market.

CCR is a comprehensive reform effort that changes placement and treatment options for kids in the California child welfare system. Centering on the idea that children do best when they are raised in a family setting, CCR mandates a move away from the use of long-term group home care by increasing youth placement in foster families and by transforming existing group homes into places where youth who are not ready to live with those families can receive short-term (up to six months), intensive treatment. VMCH expects to have this transition completed by the end of 2018.

Before CCR, the average stay at VMCH was between 50 and 60 days, so a jump to a 10-day target has required extensive retraining of staff and stepping up the division’s efforts to recruit qualified foster families.

“As the result of our work on group home care we’ve reduced the number of kids in group home care from 119 to 18,” said Honey. VMCH’s census in November was down to nine children living at the facility, compared to the average 39 children before CCA took affect.

Permanency is the goal, which is why services are being designed to follow the child instead of forcing a child to move to receive the services he or she needs, said Honey.

Additionally, VMCH has been contracting with the International Trauma Center (which also works with Hanna Boys Center), training staff to bring a trauma-informed care program to VMCH.

VMCH is now part of a three-department effort with Human Services, Health Services, and Probation coordinating their planning and implementation, sharing meetings and staff. Through this partnership, the department of Behavioral Health Services has stepped up its oversight of mental health screening of foster children and mental health services for children transitioning out of residential treatment. Health Services has hired two public health nurses and a psychiatric nurse focused specifically on providing oversight and individualized follow-up for every youth on psychotropic medications.

VMCH is also looking at the possibility of a short-term residential treatment center on the same campus. “We will need, and are anticipating, our own short-term residential treatment center so that those children who need it will get it automatically at VMCH instead of waiting for someone to step up to the plate,” said Honey. That would be a different process than becoming a 10-day shelter, and would need to be completed by 2019.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has been an advocate for community health, was adamant that the “beautiful” facility at VMCH become more than a temporary shelter. “I will say I think it’s going to be important for Valley of the Moon [Childrens Home] to transition to a treatment center; otherwise, in many ways it’s an underutilized facility. It’s a massive facility, there were millions of dollars that were raised to build this through the [Valley of the Moon Children’s] Foundation and I do think it’s a shame if it were to remain underutilized. We do know there is a real need for these treatment centers.”

The Valley of the Moon Children’s Foundation was instrumental in raising the $11 million to build the Children’s Home facilities, which opened in 2005. The campus includes medical and dental offices, a specialized infant and toddler area, visiting and counseling areas, and office space for admissions and volunteer services.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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