SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — There are concerns about San Diego County's emergency shelter for kids.
State social workers say the Polinsky Children's Center violated state licensing guidelines and there's a pattern of non-compliance. But it's not just the state calling out a problem with the facility. People who work at the Polinsky Center say things need to change.
"Polinsky is a temporary shelter for children in need,” explained residential care worker Rachel Randolph.
Randolph has been an employee with the county for nine years. Her job is to oversee the campus, housing, and support for the staff at the Polinsky Children’s Center.
"It's pretty much the last stop,” Randolph said. “It's like the last option."
Randolph spoke with ABC 10News as a steward or representative for the union voicing concerns members have about the Polinsky Children's Center and its management.
“As a union steward, I get a lot of emails and a lot of phone calls due to being short-staffed, which is on a regular basis, staff feeling they're not supported,” Randolph said. “The staff do not feel supported at all.”
ABC 10News reporter Adam Racusin asked Randolph about the impact of inadequate staffing. “You're not able to supervise the kids properly,” she said. “I mean things happen. We're there to protect the kids and we don't want anything to happen."
Randolph says to protect the identity of the kids at the shelter and employees she's limited in what she can talk about, but she acknowledged that some staff members describe the working conditions as unsafe.
ABC 10News reporter Adam Racusin asked Randolph if the staff thinks the County of San Diego is doing enough to protect them and the kids. “No, they don’t,” she said.
A spokesperson for the County of San Diego says they take all child and workplace safety concerns seriously.
In an email he wrote, “Like so many places during the pandemic, Polinsky experienced staffing challenges during the height of the Omicron surge between December 2021 and February 2022. In instances when staff were not available, additional staff were brought in to ensure Community Care Licensing ratios were always maintained.”
However, Team 10 also spoke with several current and former staff members who also voiced concerns. Scared of retaliation they asked not to be identified.
They say the county allowed teenage boys and girls to live in the same housing unit. They claim there are drugs and alcohol on campus and an increasing number of kids who "AWOL," a military term meaning “away without leave” or in this case when the kids leave the center without permission from the staff.
According to data ABC 10News got from the San Diego Police Department, in the past three years and a few months there were more than 2,000 calls for service to the address matching the Polinsky Center. Everything from disturbing the peace, to threats with weapons and runaway juveniles.
A county spokesperson says Polinsky is not a locked facility.
In an email, the spokesperson wrote in part.
To your questions on AWOL incidents, it might be helpful to level set how an AWOL incident is defined. According to CDSS Community Care Licensing (CCL) regulations, Polinsky is not a locked facility and must leave at least one door open. While staff at Polinsky are trained in de-escalation and try to encourage youth not to leave, they can't physically intervene and bar anyone from leaving. Per PCC protocols, whenever a child is AWOL, law enforcement is notified, which contributes to the high number of police calls from the facility. An AWOL is filed whether the individual is gone for minutes or days, and in very many cases youth return within minutes or hours. Additionally, AWOL does not necessarily indicate that we are unaware of the child's whereabouts. Note that according to CCL regulations, when youth return to campus no physical search of the youth or their belongings can take place unless there is a reasonable suspicion that they have brought something into the facility they should not.
Randolph says a lot of members express concerns about the children leaving the facility.
“Let’s say they do bring contraband onto campus, they’re let inside it’s on campus now,” she said.
The county says Polinsky is undergoing several renovations to help reduce the number of AWOL youth and minimize contraband items being brought to the facility. They say those renovations include the installation of more video cameras and upgrades to the fencing around the perimeter of the campus.”
"As a steward, now we're seeing that the members are really tired. Management has changed so the practices have changed, and they are tired. They feel like they are swimming in a pool and don't know where they're going. There's no direction,” she said.
STATE OF CALIFORNIA LICENSING CONCERNS
Also looking for changes at Polinsky, the California Department of Social Services.
In January the state sent a scathing letter to the director of San Diego County's Child Welfare Services. The letter says the Polinsky Center is supposed to be a temporary stay of no more than 10 days. Instead, the letter says youth are staying there much longer.
The letter said:
The County has reported hundreds of children are placed at Polinsky each year, many of whom are under the age of six years old, with an average stay that exceeds the maximum allowable length of stay of ten days for a temporary shelter care facility. In addition, data from the past year indicates children under the age of six were 19% of all admissions into Polinsky, with 11% of those youth staying at the shelter over 30 days in violation of the allowable length of stay under HSC Section 1530.8, subdivision (c) and the ILS section 84601, subdivision (t), and section 84613, subdivision (b)(4). Extended placements in congregate care facilities make it difficult for young children to form the kind of stable attachments that are vital for their healthy social and emotional development.
The letter also noted Polinsky had more than double the number of children under the age of six staying for more than 30 days in shelter care than any comparably sized shelter care facility.
“The pandemic has really caused a national crisis of available homes and has played out with longer stays in Polinsky for example locally while unacceptable. I do think while unacceptable there is some need to pause and take a look at this data at the date it was taken,” said Carolyn Griesemer, Executive Director of Children's Legal Services of San Diego. Lawyers there protect and defend the rights of children and youth in the child welfare system.
Griesemer says she applauds the state for keeping an eye on children with oversight and accountability.
However, she says what's not reflected in the letter are local efforts to keep siblings together and find the right placement even if it takes longer than 10 days.
“Behind the scenes of this data is a bigger story of individual cases that have asked for that, the youth in our current cases having asked that and then the lived experience of voice including policy discussion in the past two to three years in the county,” she said.
In March, the State Licensing officials held a meeting with county officials to discuss a plan moving forward. According to notes from the meeting, “The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Polinksy’s noncompliance with the temporary shelter care facility requirements provided in Health and Safety Code section 1530.8 and the Temporary Shelter Care Facility Interim Licensing Standards. The discussion included San Diego’s plan to correct the violations and CFSD technical assistance opportunities. CDSS will further consider San Diego’s plan of correction and will schedule another meeting with the County to discuss any proposed modifications to the plan or further technical assistance that can be provided by CDSS.”
The County of San Diego did not agree to ABC 10News requests for an on-camera interview. Instead, they sent an email with responses to topics and some questions.
Addressing overstays called out by the state a county spokesperson wrote, “As your questions note, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) reviewed data specific to youth under 6 years-of-age and the time they stayed at Polinsky, determining that some were there longer than 10 days. In the review of that data, it was apparent that the majority of these overstays for children under 6 were due to an effort to keep sibling sets intact while finding placements for them in the same home. FY20-21 data already reflected a reduction in the number of children under 6 staying longer than 10 days. Beyond that, the County has implemented several additional strategies to help further reduce the length of stay for children under 6. These include: prioritizing relative home approvals for children under 6, initiating technical assistance calls with CDSS for children under the age of 6 as soon as possible, daily phone calls between regional PCC managers to discuss placement options for children under 6, and prioritizing level of care assessments for children under 6. These efforts are resulting in a further reduction in the number of overstays for children under 6.”
As to the older kids the spokesperson wrote, “Polinsky is regularly cleaned and maintained to ensure the facility is sanitized and functioning properly. Boys and girls are almost always kept in different cottages, but in a handful of instances during the height of the Omicron surge, boys and girls were housed in the same cottage (with separate rooms) in order to create space for isolation of youth who were exposed to or who tested positive for COVID-19 during the Omicron surge. While that did occur on a few rare occasions due to the emergency, Polinsky has returned to regular operations, with boys and girls in separate cottages and staffing at normal levels.”
While many people ABC 10News spoke with disagree with the county’s decisions and worry needs are not being addressed, one thing it seems they do all agree on is people are there to protect the kids.
"Polinsky can be fixed,” Randolph said. “Because the purpose of us being there is to protect these kids and we have members who are there to do their jobs. They show up every day regardless of if they are short-staffed or not."