SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Inappropriate relationships, drugs, and a death at a state-licensed facility for youth.
A series of disturbing incidents at Circle of Friends – a short-term residential therapeutic treatment program in Escondido – have child welfare experts calling for local and state government officials to step in.
"I have never seen a facility that has this volume of not just calls for police service but violent behavior going on," said Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso.
Life and Death of Isaiah Shane
"I would do anything to have my son healthy and happy and back in our lives," said Amanda Shane.
When you lose a child, getting through most days isn't easy. Just waking up in the morning can be too much to bear.
"I feel so lost. I feel so hopeless," she said.
For Amanda Shane, the past five months have been a battle of not wanting to get out of bed mixed with a need to advocate for her son Isaiah. Isaiah was known for his big personality and kind heart, but the teenager struggled with addiction.
At the start of the pandemic, it spiraled out of control.
"He was breaking into my room and breaking down my door," Shane said. "There's a lot of damage if you survey the house from the front door all the way through."
She says there wasn't a recovery program or support group that she didn't try.
"We were always trying to get creative and resourceful. San Diego actually has a lot to offer," she said.
Nothing worked. Toward the end of 2020, Shane says Isaiah's behavior reached a fever pitch.
"Isaiah had reached a level sickness that he didn't care anymore if he went to jail or if he died," Shane said. "He didn't really care if I died. He was very sick."
She says Isaiah was eventually hospitalized, but that didn't last long either. It's a pandemic, and Shane said she was told the hospital needed the bed.
"I said my son is sick. He's not ready. They said if you're not going to pick him up, we're going to notify social services, and we're going to notify the police, and they are going to arrest you for child abandonment. I said, well, my son comes first. Do what you have to do to me. My son needs help whatever you've got to do to get the attention for my son. I don't care, so the police came to my door, and they arrested me for child abandonment."
Shane says Isaiah left the hospital, was placed in foster care, and eventually ended up in a short-term residential therapeutic program in Escondido – run by the nonprofit Circle of Friends. It's an updated version of a group home that's supposed to provide specialized intensive care and supervision, services and supports, and treatment.
Isaiah died a few months later.
According to his autopsy report, he was found unresponsive in the bathroom of his group home. He died a short time later at the hospital.
The autopsy report, "Scene investigation revealed probable illicit drugs including loose blue pills nearby. Past medical history is significant for substance abuse. The autopsy findings included pulmonary edema and congestion. Toxicological testing significant for fentanyl and alprazolam. Based on the examination findings and the circumstances surrounding the death, as currently understood, the cause of death is toxic effects of fentanyl and alprazolam, with obesity listed as contributing, and the manner of death is an accident."
"Not to say Isaiah's guilt-free. He was old enough to know right from wrong, but he was also ill. He needed help.” Shane said.
Circle of Friends
Isaiah's death isn't the first disturbing incident to happen at the Escondido home. Team 10 discovered, in the past two years, there have been a series of events that would give any parent pause.
Facility reports, complaints, investigations, and reports are logged and made public through the California Department of Social Services website. Reports show Circle of Friends Escondido home has had 25 complaint investigations since 2016.
They've been cited for several immediate health and safety issues as well as potential health and safety issues.
An October 2019 facility evaluation report found "one clogged sink in the hallway bathroom, one bent window screen in the living room/office area and there is a locked cabinet in the garage that has outdated food from 2014 and rat or mouse urine and feces, and the back door was observed to have a loose door handle."
During that 2019 visit, a records review found that the current administrator's license expired the previous year.
Then there are the more severe issues.
A March 2020 complaint investigation report found, “there is a preponderance of evidence to prove the Caseworker engaged in an inappropriate relationship with C1 (client).
The report says, "Therefore, the above allegation is substantiated at this time. This poses a health, safety, and/or personal rights risk to the foster children in care."
The report didn't confirm what happened, just that the facility manager was suspended and later resigned. The report also stated, "administrator stated that staff have been retrained pertaining to personal rights and boundaries between staff members and clients."
Fast forward a year to March of 2021. A state investigation report shows another inappropriate relationship between an employee and one of the residents. The report stated, "Record review revealed several inappropriate text messages and voicemails sent between S1 (staff) and C1 (client). Record review and confidential interviews revealed that S1 was the only staff on duty overnights at the facility at which time the inappropriate interactions between S1 and C1 occurred. Confidential interviews report S1 sent C1 inappropriate pictures on at least one occasion. Confidential interviews confirmed an ongoing relationship occurred between S1 and C1 beginning in October or November 2020."
Team 10 discovered the staff member was charged with four sexual assault-related crimes. A spokesperson for the San Diego County District Attorney's office tells Team 10 that the person pleaded guilty to one count of oral copulation by one over 21 on a person under 16.
In May of 2021, Isaiah Shane died from a drug overdose.
And just last month, another incident involved the Escondido Police Department.
"One of the minors had hand sanitizer dumped on his chest and lit on fire, causing second-degree burns," said Chief Varso.
Police Calls and Reports
Records obtained by Team 10 show nearly 350 police calls to the address listed for the facility from 2017 through the middle of September of this year. Many of the calls are for reports of runaway juveniles. Varso says that's when kids living at the facility don't come back or have gone AWOL.
But there are other types of calls police are responding to.
"We're up to 96 police calls to this facility just this year in 2021," Varso said. “We're responding to everything from drug use, to fights, to a suspected overdose death, to youth that are climbing on the rooftop, using drugs on the rooftop running from police, challenging police to a fight."
Circle of Friends has a second treatment facility located in Escondido. Records from the San Diego County Sherriff's Department show more than 160 calls for service to that address in the past two years. The records show calls for runaway juveniles, disturbances, and a suicide attempt.
Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin asked Chief Varso if he's concerned for the safety of the youths in the facility. "I'm very concerned for the safety of the kids in the facility."
Racusin asked the chief if he thought the facility should continue operating. "I haven't seen anything that leads me to believe that this facility can continue to operate. At least not in its current structure," Varso said.
Circle of Friends Response
Circle of Friends does business as the National Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuse. They have an office in Escondido.
A filing on the California Secretary of State's website shows the corporation was registered in 1989. Circle of Friends is registered as a nonprofit.
The leadership for Circle of Friends declined Team 10's request for an on-camera interview.
Instead, the President of the Board, Mindey Morrison sent a written statement saying, "Circle of Friends has been in existence for over 25 years helping severely traumatized children in San Diego County. COF has always held itself to the highest standards and has provided exemplary care to hundreds of children. COF has been commended by many organizations for our approach of always going ‘above and beyond.’ Our longevity is a testament to the commitment and work being done daily 24/7. This past year of COVID and lock downs has presented even more extreme challenges; however, COF remains committed to working with these troubled children. We will continue to follow the strict county and state guidelines in place to provide the best services and care these children deserve."
Public records information obtained by Team 10 show Morrison is listed as the owner of both houses where the treatment facilities are located.
A Concerning Pattern
"I think when you see ongoing concerns, issues continuing to be a problem and to be the basis of complaints, I do think that's exactly what the county and the state should be looking at and following up on," said Jessica Heldman, Fellmeth-Peterson Professor in Residence in Child Rights. Heldman is an expert in child rights and juvenile law at the University of San Diego's School of Law.
Team 10 asked her to look through Circle of Friends’ complaint and investigation reports.
"From looking at the evaluation reports and the complaints, certainly concerned about the number of complaints, the volume of complaints, as well as what some of the particular issues are with regard to the safety of youth and violation of their rights while in the facility," Heldman said. "A number of red flags."
Circle of Friends is licensed through the California Department of Social Services but has a contract with the County of San Diego to place youths locally. Right now, the county has seven youth placed at Circle of Friends.
If the youth don't qualify for federal funding, the county is paying upward of $12,000 to $14,000 per child per month for that placement.
The County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency has had a contract with Circle of Friends since Nov. 15, 2012.
At the time of the initial contract, Circle of Friends was licensed by the California Department of Social Services as a group home, and when AB403 was implemented, all group homes had to transition to Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs) if they were going to continue serving foster youth.
According to the county, the State of California worked with group homes over several years to convert them to STRTPs. The STRTP contract with Circle of Friends began on June 1, 2021. As a STRTP, the youth served by Circle of Friends have higher-level behavioral health needs than youth previously served when they were a group home. A county spokesperson says youth placed in STRTPs must meet medical necessity for Specialty Mental Health Services and those treatment needs are not able to be met in a family placement.
Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin asked the county about recently confirmed incidents and if the county will continue to place youth with Circle of Friends.
In a statement, a spokesperson wrote, "As aforementioned, the county's utmost priority is the placement of youth in a setting that can most appropriately meet their individual needs. The particular needs of the youth being placed can sometimes limit the number locations where placement is an option. It is relevant to note again that Circle of Friends recently was licensed as a higher treatment facility (STRTP). During this transition they have been forthcoming about some of the challenges they have encountered while also being responsive to addressing issues quickly. They continue to show their commitment to providing the best care for youth in their care in their work with the State, the County, law enforcement and others while actively making the necessary changes and improvements. You may remember that earlier this year, CDSS required counties that had youth placed in congregate care facilities out of state to bring them back and find placement within California. This has impacted the number of available STRTP placements for youth. With the limited number of STRTPs available for youth with high needs, the county continues to work with the state to monitor and support the facility to make sure that it is appropriate and safe for youth who are placed there."
A spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) says Circle of Friends will remain licensed as long as they are meeting the required licensing standards and maintain the corrective actions related to any citations.
When asked about the department’s response to the Escondido Police Chief’s concerns the spokesperson wrote, “The Department is working with the facility to help them correct deficiencies. The Department has engaged the assistance of various departments -- including the San Diego County Child Welfare Protection Services, San Diego County Probation Department, Department of Health Care Services, and Escondido Police Department -- to provide needed technical assistance to the facility. Licensees are generally afforded an opportunity to correct deficiencies. In general, if a licensee is unwilling or unable to maintain compliance with licensing requirements, CDSS may seek administrative legal action, which may include revocation of the license.”
On Sept. 30, after Team 10 started asking questions about the facility, representatives from the state, county, facility, police department, and others held a virtual meeting to discuss how agencies can assist the facility in avoiding health and safety issues, address concerns and to discuss the STRTP program being provided among other things.
According to a state report, the state regional manager requested "a plan of correction and plan of action due on 10/30/2021 for the following: - An update to the Program Statement including: AWOL policy, SIR reporting, Emergency Intervention Plan focusing on Trauma informed Care, Mental Health Interventions after-hours/ weekends and Ratio. - Licensee will contact LE for additional staff training and a consultation for behavioral services and provide a plan on how the facility will ensure staff feel supported. - Licensee will address the lack of managerial oversight, lack of supervision, and complaints of lack of support by management for staff."
For Isaiah's mom, that's not good enough.
"The state needs to roll out statewide changes that implement ways to protect all of our kids," Shane said.