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California Group Home Liable for Millions in Case of Abused Boy

A jury hit FamiliesFirst, one of California’s largest mental health care providers, for neglect and fraud.

Deshaun Becton stands near Mount Pleasant, Utah, in 2015. (Kim Raff, special to ProPublica)

A jury in Sacramento, California, last week awarded more than $11 million to the family of a 16-year-old-boy who had been sexually assaulted by a peer at his group home in Davis. The jury found that operators of the group home failed to look after the boy as the facility for troubled youngsters descended into a prolonged period of chaos and violence.

The boy, Deshaun Becton, was 11 at the time of his 15-month stay at the home, but functioned at the level of a 5-year-old, making him especially vulnerable to children with records of violence and predation, the jury found. One night in May 2013, he disappeared for several hours. As it turned out, he was in a public bathroom of a nearby park, where he was victimized by an older, larger female resident of the home. His parents weren’t notified by the home’s staff for 24 hours after he left.

The jury found EMQ FamiliesFirst — one of the largest mental health providers in the state — guilty of neglect, fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It awarded the Bectons damages in the amount of $4.55 million and a separate, punitive verdict of $7.5 million.

Deshaun Becton, by age 3, had lived with a half-dozen foster families before being adopted by his parents, Veronice and Lamont Becton, in 2004. A nurse and a firefighter, the Bectons were dedicated to Deshaun, but they struggled to tend to his extreme outbursts and obvious behavioral health needs. In March 2012, they placed him at the Davis home. State and county officials, along with counselors from the home, promised they could help Deshaun.

“We were a family struggling to change a life and in need of 12 to 15 mature jurors who could judge our situation with fairness and common sense, and that is exactly what you have provided,” Lamont Becton, Deshaun’s father, said in a statement thanking the judge, jury, and his attorney, Sean Laird. “We pray that you never forget him, and the thousands of other foster care children that are out there without a voice.”

The lawsuit drew on findings unearthed by ProPublica in its 2015 examination of the home, part of a series of stories on systems of care for troubled children in California and elsewhere.

Over the course of a six-week trial, the jury heard evidence from a range of witnesses. They described a terrifying stretch of months at the home where police responded to hundreds of emergency calls, children absconded by the dozen and staff quit in frustration.

As laid bare in legal filings and documents, Deshaun initially progressed at the home. But when the company encountered financial problems, it made leadership changes, laid off essential staff and quickly spiraled out of control. Then, in October 2012, when a staffer broke a girl’s arm trying to restrain her, the state Department of Social Services cracked down, ordering the staff to dramatically reduce its reliance on “restraints,” the controversial physical holds used by counselors to subdue troublesome children.

The group home’s leader, a licensed therapist named Audrie Meyer, instructed her staff not to restrain children except in the rarest circumstances. The children came to understand they had more freedom. They began leaving the campus in large numbers. Staff were instructed to “shadow” them rather than physically keep them on the grounds. But because of the layoffs, there weren’t enough staff to adequately supervise the children who remained at the home and those who wandered off. The disorder intensified. Children began spending nights in local parks, hitchhiking across the state, using drugs and having sex with one another and adult strangers in the community.

“It was like going to war instead of going to work,” one counselor said in a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit.

When children told such distressing stories to counselors, Meyer seemed unconcerned, even callous.

In a deposition, one clinician at the home said Meyer told her: “Well when they are tired of being raped, they’ll come back.”

At trial, Meyer denied making that statement. She did not return a call for comment on this story.

But in hours of previous interviews with ProPublica, she defended her conduct. She said she was distraught by the situation at FamiliesFirst but felt powerless to stop it. She said she alerted her superiors to the tumult at the home, but they failed to meaningfully intervene.

EMQ FamiliesFirst was originally composed of two separate social service organizations that merged in 2009. It ran the 72-bed group home out of Davis for more than a decade, serving hundreds of children from California’s juvenile justice, education and foster care systems.

The company recently changed its name to Uplift Family Services. It issued a brief statement in response to questions about the verdict, saying it continues to serve 30,000 children and families in California.

“We are disappointed in the verdict, it does not reflect the great work EMQ FamiliesFirst provided in Davis,” the statement said. “We will work to ensure that the judgment has no impact on direct services to children and families.”

As for Deshaun, he is in a secure psychiatric facility in Utah, where he has lived for over a year. ProPublica chronicled his journey through California’s beleaguered social services system in 2015, showing how he became one of the more than 900 California children who have wound up in out-of-state treatment facilities because they have overwhelmed resources in their home state.

His mother, Veronice, told ProPublica he “isn’t doing well.” She said that during the trial, she was getting calls from staff at the facility where he resides. They were telling her he had been acting out and had to be secluded from his peers.

She is shocked by the amount of the verdict and hopeful it will finally give their family the ability to pay for better treatment. Up until now, his treatment has mostly been paid for by the state.

“We could never afford the right kind of care for him,” Veronice Becton said. “We’ve never had a whole lot of choice in it. We had to take what was given to us. To have some say and choice in that is just beyond. We just wanted to know what happened to our son. That was our whole issue.”

*Help us investigate: If you have experience with or information about group homes, email [email protected].*

*Related stories: For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on group homes, juvenile detention, and family court.*

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