How a Last-Resort Academy for Foster Children in San Diego Has Succeeded

Two students share a quiet moment in the San Pasqual courtyard. The academy has had remarkable success getting foster children to graduate from high school and avoid incarceration. Photo: Marty Graham.

When they move into San Pasqual Academy, on 230 rural acres outside San Diego, many foster children are experiencing their first stable home.

The academy, where teens live in homes nestled between orange groves, has had remarkable success getting foster children to graduate from high school and avoid incarceration.

But the lauded program is only about 60 percent full, and San Diego County officials say that’s a good thing. The county’s efforts to keep children with their families and out of the foster system are working, officials said.

The shift in local policy, which now aims to give families the resources they need to better care for children, is now beginning to show results.

About a decade ago, there were as many as 9,000 children in foster care in the county, and now there are between 3,100 and 3,400 at a given time, said San Diego Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Carolyn Caietti. Census data show that the overall population of children has remained about the same during that time.

San Diego County social workers are now directed to begin working with families as soon as they come into contact with the child welfare system. The number of youths who have committed crimes has also dropped, Caietti said.

‘A different approach’

Social worker Lilian Nguyen, who supervises the extended foster care program, said that rules that required a court filing before the county could help families were changed so that there’s more flexibility and resources immediately after the first time the child welfare department is contacted about a family problem.

In 2014, San Diego became one of eight counties in a state pilot program that allows federal funding to be used for families willing to voluntarily seek services. Before the directive, the court action was required.

“It’s a different approach: We do everything we can to help them navigate their lives rather than stepping in and removing children,” she said. “We provide parenting classes, help with public benefits programs, respite care for grandparents raising grandchildren, we find mentors to help parents learn better skills.”

The other California counties participating in the pilot are Butte, Lake, Fresno, Santa Clara, Alameda, Sonoma and Los Angeles.

County social workers first look for extended family that can take the children. With the bundled services for the child and the family that includes access to public benefits and both physical and mental health care, it has become easier to keep children in their community, Nguyen said.

“We are super proud of the support we can give kids and their families, because kids do best when they stay with their families and community,” she added. “When that’s not an option, we feel lucky we can count on San Pasqual.”

From an Empty Academy to a Home

The academy opened its campus to foster youths 12 and older as a live-in forever home in 2001. National statistics show that fewer than half of foster youths will finish high school, while 92 percent of academy residents graduate. More than 90 percent of the young men and women who attend San Pasqual are headed to college.

“A kid who goes to San Pasqual is going to graduate high school—far higher than the California average,” said retired San Diego County Superior Court Judge Jim Milliken, who helped create the academy. “Most go to college.”

As presiding judge of juvenile court from 1995 to 2003, Milliken saw kids who were being bounced from foster home to foster home—state statistics show kids are moved to new placements twice a year on average. High school graduation rates among these teens were also poor in 2000, and youths who aged out of the system often ended up homeless or in jail, Milliken said.

The academy isn’t for every foster teen. It’s designed specifically for teens who have been through a number of foster homes and schools, and aren’t likely to bond with foster parents or reunite with their families. The program is voluntary, and many foster teens prefer to stay in their communities with their friends.

Milliken persuaded the two county supervisors to champion his plan to take an empty academy and turn it into a campus for up to 185 kids who were not going to reunite with their families. With $28 million to start, the founders designed and built small houses for the teens, where they would live with adult staff members, mimicking a traditional family.

“The first year, we had three seniors walk across the stage to graduate,” Milliken said. “Since then, we’ve had more than 350.”

The academy is more than a high school campus; it is the kids’ home. Surrounded by mountains, the campus has its own gym and even an organic farm that stocks the cafeteria and sells the rest at a nearby farmer’s market. Academy alumni have their own housing and are welcome to return for summers, holidays and time between semesters, or after experiencing a difficult life event and—with staff support—figure out how to get back up and try again. Many staff members are alumni.

“I love San Pasqual Academy,” said 19-year-old graduate Rosie, who requested that her full name not be used because she doesn’t want her troubled childhood to hamper her job prospects.

“Before I went there, I moved from home to home,” Rosie said. “It was the first stable home with stable house parents I ever had. I was there for six years and never left and never wanted to.”

Rosie continues to visit the academy, she said, because her younger sister is still there. One of the strengths of the academy is that it will accept siblings, many of whom have been separated while they move through the foster-care system.

Rosie arrived at San Pasqual when she was 12, after the court terminated her parents’ rights. She’d been in foster homes for three years. Her sister was nine at the time—and had to wait three years to meet the academy’s minimum age.

A High Graduation Rate

Earlier this year, the San Diego County Grand Jury took a long look at San Pasqual, and came away asking one question: Why aren’t more foster youths being sent there?

The grand jury noted that academy’s 92 percent high school graduation rate is nearly twice the rate for foster youths in other settings—and is higher than the 80 percent average for all California high school students. The number of academy teens who go on to college is six times that of typical foster youth (60 percent compared to 10 percent), and while a third of male foster youths are incarcerated by their 21st birthday, just two of the academy’s 337 graduates have been jailed within three years of leaving the academy.

Rosie’s story is one of those included in the statistics.

She is now going to a nearby community college so she can stay close to her younger sister, who is still enrolled at San Pasqual.

“We were separated for a long time,” Rosie said. “That’s not going to happen to us again.”

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