‘No Place for a Kid to Go’

In Long Beach, California, a group home for troubled children sinks into crisis.

The tip came in at about 7 p.m. on Monday, July 27. It was an email from a woman named Patricia Cronan, a banker who lived next door to a group home in Long Beach, California. She said the home, run by a nonprofit called Bayfront Youth & Family Services, seemed to be in a perpetual state of chaos.

Children were escaping near daily and getting violently subdued by staff in front of her home. She said that children from the home had threatened her neighbor’s 10-year-old son with sexual assault while the staff laughed. Whenever Cronan tried to intervene, she said, both the teenagers and the counselors who looked after them would threaten her.

“Our neighborhood is in a frightened and tense state,” Cronan wrote.

Last April, I teamed up with the California Sunday Magazine to document the demise of a home similar in purpose to Bayfront in Davis, California. The facilities belong to a class of group homes known as Level 14 — meant to house some of the most troubled children in California’s foster care and juvenile justice systems.

In 2013, the staff at the Davis home, FamiliesFirst, had lost control of the 70 or so children under their care: Children as young as 9 disappeared for days at a time and came back with stories of drugs, sex and alcohol abuse. Some hitchhiked across the state. Others were hospitalized after suicide attempts and assaults. The home was finally closed after an 11-year-old girl said she had been raped by two boys from the home. Our report made clear the home’s operators, the state Department of Social Services and the local police had all acted too late.

From Cronan’s email, it sounded as if the same kind of unraveling might be taking place in Long Beach. I’d already reported on Bayfront, in a follow-up to the Davis story. State records showed that the home had been the subject of numerous complaints regarding sexual abuse and the aggressive use of restraints — physical holds used by staff to subdue disruptive or dangerous children. The administrators at the home had not responded to requests for information or comment.

I called Cronan. She went into greater detail about what she’d seen and heard: children being chased by staff and tackled on the street; girls coming to her front door and asking for blankets so they could sleep outside rather than return to the home. The police were now an almost constant presence.

Cronan put me in touch with a woman named Jayme Mekis, who owned a four-unit apartment building in the neighborhood. Cronan and Mekis regarded many of the home’s counselors as unprofessional and brutish. The two of them, along with several other neighbors, said they had been trying for months to get state and city officials to investigate what was happening in the home, but with limited success.

Patricia Cronan lives next door to the Bayfront facility and has had several run-ins with its employees and residents.

They were now gearing up for their third community meeting at Bayfront, set for that coming Thursday night. Local residents, Bayfront staff, a city councilman, the city attorney, police officers — all had been invited. The previous two meetings had devolved into screaming matches. Some people stormed out.

I asked the Long Beach residents I’d talked with to send me evidence of their communications with state and county officials. My inbox lit up.

One email, from a woman who lived across the street from Cronan, was addressed to the California Department of Social Services, the state entity responsible for licensing and monitoring all youth group homes.

“Monday, May 11, 2015, my neighbors and I witnessed a young girl run out of the facility in the early evening. She was screaming for someone to help her! She was then tackled to the ground by one of the Bayfront staff, a male staff member put her in a choke hold. The male staff member held her with such force that at times this little girl was literally lifted off the ground. That was after the police and ambulance left stating a “client” threatened to kill themselves, yet no one was put in the ambulance and taken to a hospital.”

According to the resident, Katherine Ioramo, DSS never responded.

I forwarded the message to my editor.

“Go,” he wrote back.

I checked into my hotel in downtown Long Beach at around noon on Thursday, July 30. The meeting was scheduled for that night.

That afternoon, freelance photographer Kendrick Brinson and I met Mekis at her house in the Bixby Knolls section of Long Beach.

Long Beach resident Jayme Mekis

She pulled out a green binder stuffed with city records and complaints she’d written to Long Beach officials: the Police Department, the city attorney’s office, the appropriate city councilman. She also displayed a map of the city blocks she canvassed around the home.

“This is the elementary school,” she said, pointing to a long rectangular building a block from Bayfront. “And you see this empty square here? This is the school’s playground. And this, down here, is an old folks home.”

Why, she asked, would anyone house some of the state’s most disturbed teenagers on the same block as an elementary school and a home for senior citizens?

Mekis had spent 13 years working in the city planner’s office. She knew that there was supposed to be a formal process in which the public could weigh in on the placement of homes like Bayfront.

A few weeks before I met her, she said, she had visited her old office and pulled the facility’s records. She found that it was operating under something called a conditional use permit dating from 1973. The building had served as a group home as far back as the early 1970s, operating under the name Trailback Lodge of Long Beach. But according to the permit, it was meant to provide 24-hour care for boys and girls “not exhibiting severe behavioral problems.”

To Mekis, the children in the home in 2015 were absolutely suffering “severe behavioral problems.”

In fact, that’s why they were there.

Level 14 group homes are meant to provide the most acute and comprehensive care for children whose psychological and behavioral problems have led to repeated treatment failures. The “clients” are often known as Severely Emotionally Disturbed children, SEDs for short. Many of those who land in these homes come through the foster care system, but lots are sent by juvenile courts or overwhelmed school districts.

There are only about 650 hospital beds for mentally ill youth in California. The state’s juvenile detention system has been overhauled, and there are now far fewer fully secure youth detention facilities. California is trying to move away from group care altogether, having concluded it is largely a failure.

Mekis leafs through city records and complaints she’s written to Long Beach officials.

Indeed, the disaster in Davis has given momentum to new legislation aimed at abandoning the group home model. The legislation, developed mostly by the Department of Social Services, is expected to make its way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk in the near future.

That DSS would allow another group home meltdown to take place in plain view seemed hard to fathom.

Many of the counselors who worked at the Davis home, known as FamiliesFirst, were inexperienced and poorly trained, and they became overmatched. Their numbers dwindled as people quit or got laid off. And the counselors were entirely perplexed by the rules about when and how to prevent children from leaving the home’s campus.

The tumult went on for months. The police logged hundreds of calls. DSS investigators made repeated visits but didn’t take decisive action. Residents were beside themselves. Children were harmed.

Now, in Long Beach, Mekis appeared to be confronting the same toxic mix: DSS inaction, police frustration and growing community desperation.

Mekis said she understands the state wants homes like Bayfront, as troubled as they are, to stay open because there are so few of them left and so few other places for these children.

But it’s only fair that the community get its say, she explained. She wants Bayfront to go through an updated, more appropriate permitting process, one that would allow the community to help shape the discussion about what to do.

“Personally, I don’t want to see it go,” she said. “I understand that there is a real need for these kids. They didn’t end up like this because they were born that way. It’s because they come from difficult families and they saw things that kids shouldn’t see.”

That said, she added, “This is no place for a kid to go.”

Fountain Street in east Long Beach, California. The Bayfront group home is at the end of the block.

I arrived at the end of Fountain Street at about 5:30 p.m. that Thursday. The Bayfront facility is a sandy brown building that looks like a cross between a school and an apartment complex. A 5-foot hedge and a 10-foot iron fence wrap around a portion of its large backyard. The only real sign of disorder was a red hula-hoop that hung high in one of the cypress trees that surround the home.

Cronan, the woman who wrote me earlier in the week, lives adjacent to Bayfront, on the north side of the street. When I pulled up, Cronan gave me a grim tour: the corner where she said a girl had been slammed into the pavement by staff after she’d tried to escape; the place under a bush in her neighbor’s yard where a teenaged boy from the home had been caught sleeping.

Other neighbors gathered in Cronan’s driveway, then moved to the fluorescent-lit cafeteria in the back of the group home at about 6:30 p.m. Roughly 40 people in all had showed for the community meeting, a mix of neighborhood residents and officials representing city, county and state agencies.

A security camera on a roof edge of the Bayfront group home, as seen from Patricia Cronan’s home.

The local city councilman, a newly elected Long Beach native named Daryl Supernaw, stepped up to moderate. Maryam Ribadu, Bayfront’s chief executive officer, spoke next. She described a list of recent changes the home had made. She said she’d purchased uniforms for staff members so people could distinguish them from the children. She’d installed cameras on the perimeter of the home. She helped hire a private security firm to help patrol the area at night. She said she was working with the Police Department to better train her staff.

When she opened the floor to questions, hands shot up across the room. It sounded like the audience had heard these claims before. Several residents said they were scared to leave their homes.

About 45 minutes into the meetings, one of Mekis’ tenants, Robby Redar, spoke up.

“We have been dealing with this for three years now,” he said. “This neighborhood was totally fine. It was peaceful and this is what we deal with now. You got kids escaping constantly. There’s cops here, paramedics here every other night, if not every night. Would you guys want to live here?”

Marleana Reed, Bayfront’s director, only fueled the crowd’s frustration when she spoke. After residents questioned the qualifications of her staff, she said they all had bachelor’s degrees. The audience scoffed.

The state social services inspector in the audience, a woman named Lenora Scott, hardly said a word, other than to explain the background check procedure for group home workers. The response from almost all the state and county regulators was similarly subdued.

The Bayfront officials tried to end the meeting by citing what they considered an achievement. Ribadu, the CEO, said the number of runaways had gone down significantly in recent weeks. There were only seven in the month of July, she said.

That elicited another uproar.

“I don’t believe that!” one of the residents shouted.

Ruth Anne Salau, the Police Department’s community liaison, confirmed that there had in fact been only seven AWOLs. But there were still 17 calls made to police, including two for reports of battery, she noted.

City Councilman Daryl Supernaw addresses east Long Beach residents during a community meeting in the Bayfront group home’s cafeteria.

By the end, most people in the room seemed tired and disheartened.

Afterward, I spoke with Scott, the DSS investigator. She told me she was not authorized to speak to reporters, but said she had not seen an increase in runaways and that, to her knowledge, DSS was not pursuing any sort of formal investigation or enforcement action against Bayfront.

I later wrote Michael Weston, the chief spokesman for the agency. We’d had many exchanges during my investigation of the Davis home. He’d insisted then that the department had done nothing wrong in its handling of FamiliesFirst’s collapse. I got a bounce-back email from him immediately after sending my inquiry.

“I am out of the office on assignment,” it read. “I will be checking email throughout the day.”

After the gathering about Bayfront, I also approached Ribadu and Reed, the two senior officials from the home. We talked briefly about staff turnover, and I made clear I’d be in touch again. But there was one thing Ribadu was intent on making sure I understood: “We are not FamiliesFirst,” she said.

As we walked out of the meeting that Thursday night in Long Beach, a group of girls began banging on one of the home’s bedroom windows. They were holding up signs. “Please help me! I feel unsafe!” read one. “I need to press charges!” read another.

The next day I met with Supernaw and his chief of staff, Alan Gafford, at their offices in Long Beach City Hall. Supernaw showed me a map of his district. It runs from a section of central Long Beach called Cambodia Town toward Orange County. Fountain Street sits roughly between the two.

“To say I have a diverse set of constituents is an understatement,” he said.

Supernaw said when he first heard complaints about Bayfront in early May, he wasn’t immediately sure whether to take them seriously.

“That’s kind of the nature of the beast. Someone might get through on the phones and talk to you, and you don’t know if they’re legitimate, and they do tend to ramble a little bit sometimes, you know,” he said.

But by the end of the month, the police had told him the facility was beginning to strain their resources. Supernaw said he dispatched Gafford to Patricia Cronan’s home for a meeting she was having with her neighbors during the last week of May. Gafford heard story after story — of runaways, violent incidents and children walking up and down Fountain Street, peeking into windows, looking like they may have been locked out of the facility.

Supernaw said he sought to better understand Bayfront — what it was, where it had come from, what it was supposed to be doing.

Bayfront, it turns out, is a nonprofit social services organization that operates on an annual budget of roughly $6.7 million. In addition to the 40-bed group home on Fountain Street, the organization also runs a mental health outpatient center for children and a program that delivers a variety of services to troubled children and their families in their homes. The home in Long Beach takes children from roughly 20 California counties.

Councilman Supernaw in his office at Long Beach City Hall.

The Long Beach home has been in operation since 1999. It was located on West 14th Street in an industrial area on the west side of Long Beach, then moved to Fountain Street in 2012. Despite DSS’s findings of repeated trouble at the home, Bayfront was allowed to expand from 29 beds to 40 in 2013. It now serves children ages 11 through 18, boys as well as girls. The average length of stay per child is nine months.

Supernaw found out that Bayfront leases the property for the Long Beach home from a larger, Long Beach-based social services nonprofit named ChildNet. ChildNet runs a nearby school, which many of the Bayfront children attend.

On June 23, Supernaw met with ChildNet’s chief executive officer, Kathy Hughes. Two days later, Supernaw said he went to his first community meeting at Bayfront, skipping his wedding anniversary to attend. He was hoping that all the responsible actors, including representatives from Bayfront, ChildNet and the city would be in attendance.

He was sorely disappointed. Hughes wasn’t there. Neither was a high-level Bayfront worker who’d been the subject of a series of complaints. Supernaw said he wasn’t impressed by the Bayfront officials who did show up.

“Every single question was answered with a ‘dog ate my homework’ kind of response,” he said. “They were blaming everyone but themselves. Just a total lack of responsibility.”

The idea that deeply troubled children, teenagers who were often a threat to themselves and others, could be routinely bolting from a state-financed and overseen facility was mind boggling, he said.

“I was in utter shock,” said Supernaw. “I have no expertise in this area, but I was in shock about juveniles being AWOL.”

Robby Redar was seen as something of a welcome combatant by the Long Beach residents upset about Bayfront. I went to see him and found him much as advertised: furious, plainspoken, and, at the end of the day, on the side of the children.

He recalled an episode, saying he couldn’t shake the memory. He said he heard a commotion from the home one afternoon and walked down the street. He saw a teen boy being chased by at least six other boys who were pummeling him with punches and kicks. Redar said it looked as if the counselors were standing back on purpose, allowing the boys to fight.

Redar said he yelled at the staff to do something. But he said they did not intervene until the boy was bruised and bleeding and someone had called the police.

Robby Redar has confronted Bayfront staff about violent incidents at the home.

“The kid came up to me crying,” Redar said. “He asked me if I’d tell the police what happened. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll tell them.’ I felt sorry for him.”

He wasn’t alone. Katherine Ioramo lives right next to the facility. She moved in with her husband and three children in 2011. Bayfront moved in the following year.

The first signs of potential trouble, she said, were fairly benign. Balls were occasionally lobbed over the wall. Sometimes children would climb over to retrieve them. Then packs of cigarettes she left on an outdoor table started to go missing. Then tampons and underwear wound up tossed over the wall.

Ioramo said she complained to the home, but things did not improve. The children from the home, she said, began threatening her son, now 11. One boy popped his head over the wall and told her husband that he was going to rape her as soon as her husband left for work. She told me she saw a staffer having sex in a blue Chrysler in front of her house. She reported it to the home’s administrators, she said, but the worker remained employed at the home for months.

Then, one evening late last year, she said, she heard a girl screaming and banging on the back windows of the home. Ioramo said she kept a pile of chairs stacked in the corner of her yard so she could see what was happening at Bayfront. She climbed on top of them and peered over. She saw a girl sprinting out of the home and jumping on the fence. The staff came out after her.

“They grabbed her by the neck,” Ioramo said.

Ioramo told me that at least six large male staffers jumped on the girl as she writhed on the ground. A female staffer stood in the back and screamed at the girl.

“You can’t fucking leave and you can’t fucking act up like this,” the staffer said.

Katherine Ioramo shares a wall with the yard the residents play in.

“I don’t know if that’s their method, if that’s how they restrain them, but that’s what they did to that little girl,” Ioramo said.

Ioramo looked down at a pile of notes on her dining room table. She’d been trying to keep up with all the incidents she witnessed at the home.

“I guess this is my life now,” she said.

By the time I got back to Cronan’s house, she’d just finished her shift at a bank in town. She said it seemed staff from the home had recently stopped physically restraining children once they fled the facility. But once the children were gone, they sometimes weren’t being let back in.

Cronan showed me a picture of a girl sitting on the bottom tier of the rose garden in front of her house. She said the girl had been wandering around the neighborhood for a few days trying to get back into the home. Eventually, they let the girl back in.

Then, a night or two later, the girl came to her door with another girl from the home who looked like she’d recently been in a fight. They asked for blankets so they could sleep outside. They said the administrators of the home wouldn’t let them back in.

Cronan said she fetched three blankets for the girls and called the police.

“It’s my Catholic background,” she said.

By the time a police officer arrived, the girls had disappeared, but a boy from Bayfront had turned up. Ioramo had seen him wandering around the neighborhood for a week. He had once slept underneath a bush in a nearby front yard. The boy said he was hungry and he wanted to go back into the home.

When a counselor came out, the police officer insisted that he take the child back in.

Cronan said when she spoke to a Bayfront official about the incidents, he told her that if children had gone missing for more than three days, the home would give their beds to new arrivals.

“I told him, ‘But these kids are hungry.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s not our concern anymore.’”

Kendrick and I met a 17-year-old who had been at Bayfront for just a week. He appeared headed back to the home after a stay outside. His matted blonde hair poked out of a sweat-stained baseball hat emblazoned with the California state bear. He looked exhausted. He was carrying a near-empty water bottle.

Just days into his stay, he said, he already hated the home. The boy rattled off complaints: there were fights; the staff was mean; he spent all his time in his room, alone, bored. Since he did not attend the hours of required group therapy, he had earned no privileges: no rights to go on outings, less free time. He said he ran away that morning and was coming back from a daylong journey to downtown Long Beach.

“I don’t want to be here. I don’t like it here. I feel intimidated here,” the boy said. “It’s depressing, especially when my anxiety runs real high. It just sucks. I’m not a bad kid. I do bad things sometimes, but I’m a teenager. I’m 17.”

The boy talked so fast it was hard to keep up. In one breath, he was lucid and insightful, the next, paranoid and contradictory.

We sat on the stairs outside a children’s clinic. The boy told me he grew up in Bakersfield, a couple of hours north of Long Beach. Bakersfield is infamous for rampant methamphetamine addiction. He said his mother had fallen into a deep drug addiction and that ultimately he had, as well. For a year, he said, he had used meth and other drugs and had all but stopped going to school.

Eventually, he said, he had come before a family court judge. He soon entered the group care system. He was 16. In the past year, he said, he had lived in six different homes. His stays in each were punctuated by stints in mental hospitals and homeless shelters.

When the boy entered Bayfront the week before I met him, he said he’d just finished a two-month long, meth-fueled bender in Bakersfield. At first he was glad to be off the street. But that sense of relief soon wore off.

“There’s something not right about this place,” he said. “It’s nothing like a rehab, nothing like it should be. It’s bullcrap. All the staff are gangbangers, it seems like. They’ll joke around with the kids about Bloods and Crips and all that.”

The boy said a kind of street justice ruled within the home. If children argued, they were allowed to fight in a locked room for a timed period. He said one boy had broken a knuckle and gotten a black eye in one such squabble. No one took him to a hospital, he said.

He said Bayfront’s management had recently installed security cameras throughout the home, but certain sections of it were still out of view. The staff would take children into those corners and employ more forceful restraints. He said the girls in the home called 911 often, but the police didn’t always come.

“This place is really bad,” he said. “It’s not doing what it’s supposed to, and I can’t do nothing about it.”

That’s why he fled that morning. I asked him why he had come back. He said he was scared. He said he didn’t know where he wanted to go.

“Right now, I’m just thinking I’d sleep behind something near here because I don’t want to go back,” he said. “They can admit me to a mental hospital. Not that I’m feeling anything, it’s just sometimes I need to get out, so I say I’m homicidal or suicidal.”

We began walking back down the hill.

“I’m just hoping this all gets published,” the boy said, “and then people will see really how group homes and the system works.”

When we came to the corner of Termino Avenue and Fountain Street, we shook hands and I watched him head back toward Bayfront.

I soon got a text from Cronan.

“You see the kid they won’t let in?”

Two days later I was back at City Hall, this time to meet Art Sanchez, the Long Beach deputy city attorney who handles nuisance abatement. He told me he was in a bind.

“The hard part of all of this is that, as I understand it, this is one of only two facilities in the entire county that are Level 14. These are kind of the last straw for these kids before they go into adulthood and into the criminal system.”

Long Beach City Hall.

He had already sent ChildNet, which leases the property to Bayfront, a warning letter back in December. That did not curb the police calls or citizen complaints. In fact, they got worse.

But if Bayfront got shut down there would be one fewer place for Los Angeles and other Southern California counties to send disturbed children. Plus, if Sanchez declared the home a nuisance, that was only the first step. He’d then have to make a case at a hearing before an administrative panel of city appointees.

What really frustrated Sanchez was that a home such as Bayfront would lack expert management and a well-trained staff. Sanchez said he’d concluded that Bayfront had neither.

“There are clearly some internal issues there,” he said. But Sanchez said he could not act against the facility for poor management. That was up to DSS, which licenses California group homes.

I asked him, “Would you like to have seen them step it up by now?”           

After a pause, he said, “I guess the answer would be yes.”

Sanchez, like most of the other government officials I talked to, had read my article on the collapse of FamiliesFirst in Davis. He said he understood that in that case everyone in government had failed to act soon enough.

“As far as I have any control over it, it’s not going to get that far,” he said of Bayfront.

He told me he was going to start asking some tougher questions of DSS, to see just how far up the hierarchy alarm bells had rung.

I had my own list of questions for Bayfront, and I emailed roughly 40 of them to Ribadu, the CEO. I askedabout her background and training, and those of Bayfront’s staff. I asked about community and police relations and listed specific allegations or accounts from residents, children, police and local officials. I said that I’d probably stop by her office at some point that week.

She wrote back:

“I want to answer your questions and address people’s concerns to have both sides heard. I want to do it in writing so I can be articulate with my responses. I’m interested in not only hearing your own questions but also the things other people are saying so I can give good information that people can rely on. I ask that you please respect my wishes of not wanting to do this in person.”

When I was reconstructing all that had gone wrong at FamiliesFirst in Davis, former employees had been crucial. I found one former Bayfront supervisory therapist through the LinkedIn Recruiter website. It appeared she had left late last year and was now working for another social services agency outside Long Beach. An automated directory patched me through.

I told her I was exploring whether Bayfront was undergoing an implosion similar to what had happened at FamiliesFirst in Davis.

“It’s a broken system, it needs to be fixed,” she said.

She said she knew a handful of other former therapists, and in short order I was in a Mexican restaurant not far off Interstate 405, talking with five of them. They said they feared being identified by name, but that they hoped speaking as a group would persuade someone to act against Bayfront. They said they’d each quit Bayfront in the past year and so had several others. They said they were fed up with the low pay, long hours and, above all, the unwillingness of their supervisors to listen.

At the crux of their concerns was that the most educated, most qualified people on the staff — those with advanced degrees or working toward licenses in counseling or social work — often felt they had the least say in the operation of the home. The therapists at the restaurant told me that at Bayfront they had particular trouble with the “line staff,” lesser-credentialed workers who interact with the children the most.

“They would say we baby the clients,” said one of the therapists. “And they had this kind of tough love mentality. They’d threaten and yell at them.”

The therapists told stories of line staffers using racial and derogatory slurs against the children, provoking them to act aggressively, then restraining them when they did.

Patricia Cronan’s notes recording incidents at the Bayfront group home.

They said Marleana Reed, the home’s director, rarely disciplined or fired line staffers and that when she did, she often offered them second chances. They said one staffer had been fired after throwing a client on the floor, only to be rehired a year later and eventually promoted.

Clinicians, on the other hand, came and went, the therapists said. Some were fired for good reasons, including one who was let go for making racist remarks to her staff, they said. But others quit in frustration.

The group suspected that all the recent departures contributed to the recent spike in AWOLs. They speculated that the “rookie” therapists who had replaced them had been “eaten alive” by the children.

The group also said that for all the recent attention to the home, state regulators probably still lacked a full picture of the chaos. They spoke of senior staff rewriting and downplaying incident reports to the Department of Social Services. They said DSS inspectors rarely came on unannounced visits, so management always knew when they had to make things appear organized and under control.

And now, the therapists said, it seemed likely Bayfront was set to expand again. The therapists told me a company called Harborview had recently closed its locked facility for juveniles. That meant the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health needed a substitute. The group said Bayfront would likely be it.

Of the state, one therapist concluded, “I think it behooves them to look the other way.”

It had been several days since I’d sent my list of 40 questions to Ribadu. Then on Thursday, Aug. 6, I received a formal response.

She provided some basics about Bayfront. It housed 22 girls and 13 boys, she wrote. She said the home had a total of 120 employees, including 14 therapists. Every child is assessed by a psychiatrist at least once a month, she said. She said children at Bayfront followed a “structured daily program that includes routine hygiene, meal, education, breaks, therapeutic groups and a student council meeting that is provided daily and run by clients for clients.”

She also offered a bit of background about herself. She said she had been working at Bayfront for 15 years and had worked in “behavioral health” for over 20 years. She said she earned an MBA in 2001.

Maryam Ribadu, CEO of Bayfront Youth & Family Services.

“I have always had a passion working with and for children, having raised a number of my own children,” she said. “I was born in West Africa, Nigeria, and moved and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen due to increased opportunities for education and work. Nigeria does not have the advancements in behavioral care in comparison to the U.S. system and I am proud to be part of that advancement.”

She sent a link to Bayfront’s federally required tax form. The form said she earned $192,000 in 2013. The next highest paid employee was outpatient director Cynthia Sarmiento, at $75,000.

Ribadu did not directly address any of the specific allegations of misconduct by her staff or the spate of runaways.

“Bayfront is proactive in learning why clients choose AWOL as a coping mechanism,” she wrote. “The agency relies on internal systems of care to support clients in decision making.”

Ribadu cited confidentiality laws in declining to talk about specific claims of abuse or neglect made by neighbors or children. She instead recited the home’s policy on thoroughly investigating all allegations. She would not say whether any workers had been disciplined or fired over their handling of the children. She also would not say why the police had been at the home so frequently, only that “the agency follows all reporting requirements” under state law. She would not discuss the nature or extent of DSS’s interactions with the home.

Asked about staff turnover, she said she tracked turnover rates in the facility but wouldn’t provide numbers on how many staff had recently quit. She maintained that youth counselors participate in a 16-hour orientation and attend more than 100 hours of additional training on crisis management, mandated reporting and other topics. She said “all employees at Bayfront receive salaries comparable to similarly held positions within the industry.”

Further, she said Bayfront had treated all its employees fairly, whether they were frontline workers or therapists. She said she was unaware of any employee who had been fired and then rehired and promoted. She maintained that DSS’s visits were always unannounced. And there was no plan to expand, she said.

Like all emails from Ribadu, Bayfront’s slogan was on the bottom: “Changing Lives is what we do.”

I had also submitted questions to Hughes, but she was not much more forthcoming. Despite an initial pledge to meet in person, she, too, answered my inquiries only in writing.

She said Bayfront had been doing its best. The organization, she said, had “created a grievance policy for neighbors,” and invited state and local officials to attend monthly forums to discuss issues. She said Bayfront “had installed cameras, increased staff training, changed their uniforms, etc. etc.”

She added that ChildNet had repaved the parking lot, allowed for designated parking spaces, increased the wall height in the play area and contracted a private security company to provide additional support to the home’s night staff.

Hughes said that she was “very concerned when recent events were brought to [her] attention” and has thus been “working diligently with the various stakeholders to address concerns.”

The Long Beach Police East Sub-station covers the neighborhood where Bayfront is located.

About a week after the community meeting, I went to see Cmdr. Elizabeth Griffin and Neighborhood Services Specialist Ruth Anne Salau at the Long Beach Police Department’s East Division station.

Salau said that despite the city attorney having put the home on notice, the number of emergency calls to the department had intensified since. Griffin said she’d personally heard complaints from her officers about the volume of activity. In May and June, there were roughly 35 to 45 calls per month related to Bayfront – mostly regarding AWOLs from the facility.

In late May, Griffin visited the facility herself. She said she came away thinking the management didn’t have a firm grasp of the trouble they were in.

“I think the management has this imaginary idea of what’s happening there, but that’s not really what’s happening there,” she said. “There’s a big hole somewhere in there.”

Griffin said she has since dispatched one of her lieutenants to help train the staff on techniques to prevent AWOLs.           

Cmdr. of the East Division Elizabeth Griffin.

“It’s obvious to us that the people that are doing the front line supervising of the individuals don’t have the proper training,” she said. “The problem that we’re seeing with these AWOLs — the reason why they may be going hands on or the reason why they can’t keep them in there — is because they don’t know how to talk to them.”

While the turmoil at FamiliesFirst in Davis had been on a different scale — there were hundreds of 911 calls per month at that home— officers there went through a remarkably similar experience. They met regularly with the group home staff. They discussed training techniques. Unfortunately, as Griffin well knew, the effort to help FamiliesFirst proved inadequate. Some officers felt the Davis Police Department had failed the children by not acting more emphatically to try and close the home.

Griffin said she was hoping another oversight body like the Los Angeles County Probation Department would step in. In fact, I later saw officials from the probation department, which has a unit dedicated to overseeing group homes, on the Bayfront grounds.

“We are limited in what we can do without search warrants and things like that,” Griffin said. “We’re letting the [county] get in there now to see what they can do to help with the problem.”

“We’re grasping at anything right now,” she added.

I ran into the 17-year-old Bayfront resident once more before leaving Long Beach. He looked to be in bad shape. He’d grown a light-blonde beard. He wore dark sunglasses, a faded black T-shirt, and dusty, loose-fitting jeans draped over a pair of black Converse sneakers. His neck and face were badly sunburned.

He again held a nearly empty water bottle. He toyed with it, rolling around the single drop of water inside. He said he had not eaten or slept in two days, having taken off again from Bayfront just days after we’d seen him return.

He said he spent the next two days among 30 to 50 men and women doing meth on the beach and in squatter camps scattered through town.

“I smoked it and ate it,” he said of the drug.

He said he had awoken on the beach that morning as the sun came up. He’d just made the 1 ½-hour walk back to Bayfront. He said he came back because he was hungry — starving, actually. He was worried about how the staff and children might react when he came back to the home, certain they’d be able to tell he was high.

“I just don’t know how I am going to go back like this,” he said.

As we talked, he said he noticed staff from the home driving by, staring at the two of us and then looking away.

“I’m going to ask to go to a hospital, but I know they won’t take me unless I do something to myself,” he said, making a slicing motion along the inside of his forearms. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Hopefully eat and go to sleep. I feel just lost right now.”

He laced his fingers and pressed his forehead against the backs of his thumbs. His nails were long and rimmed with dirt.

On the way back to the home, I noticed the boy wore a mint-green plastic bracelet bearing the word COMMITTED in bold, black lettering. He said a friend named Candy had given it to him at a psychiatric hospital. The bracelet was meant to help him stay sober. He felt bad it hadn’t worked.

At the corner of Termino and Fountain, we passed the open doors of what looked like an activity room in the elementary school. It was full of kids, maybe 10 years younger than the boy from Bayfront. They played pingpong, laughed and worked on art projects.

I asked him if he had any fond memories of his childhood.

He said yes, there were a few: dancing in the kitchen with his grandmother and playing catch and going on long drives with his father in Bakersfield.

And then he kept walking toward Bayfront.

The group home run by Bayfront Youth & Family Services in Long Beach, California.

When I got back to New York, I connected with Michael Weston, the spokesman for DSS. I resent my initial set of questions about what I’d been told regarding the situation at Bayfront and what, if anything, the department was doing about it.

“We are closely monitoring Bayfront as we do all licensed community care facilities,” Weston replied. “The department does not discuss any future actions against a facility.”

Weston said he could not speak to specific incidents at the facility without more details on the individual events.

I wrote back and summarized all I had heard and learned in Long Beach — the claims that resident complaints had been ignored, the concerns from police, a city lawyer and local legislators about the competence of the home’s leadership, the allegations of a cover-up of serious incidents within the walls of Bayfront.

Finally, I wrote: “Does DSS consider a place with this level of security issues and police attention to be safe for children?”

On Friday, Aug. 21, I heard from one of the Long Beach officials I’d met. The person was not authorized to speak publicly but said pressure was growing among government regulators to deal with Bayfront.

The official said roughly 30 county and state officials had met the previous day and reviewed documents showing that Bayfront’s policies for handling incident reports appeared to violate state regulations. The documents, the official said, suggested senior Bayfront personnel were deciding which reports of trouble to send to state authorities and which not to send. All staff members at Bayfront are mandatory reporters, obligated by law to report any possible abuse or neglect of minors.

The official said the Los Angeles County Probation Department and the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, which oversees foster care, had placed a hold on admitting any additional children from the county to Bayfront. The probation department later confirmed that fact and said it had launched a formal investigation of the home.

Ribadu, Bayfront’s CEO, would neither confirm nor deny any such hold, but she refuted any claim that serious incidents had been downplayed to state authorities.

Weston responded to my questions on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 23. He acknowledged significant problems at the home but said DSS had been diligent in its oversight and was trying to get Bayfront back on track. He confirmed that Los Angeles County had placed a hold on the home.

He said DSS officials have visited the facility — often unannounced — 62 times in the past year. He said DSS met with the Long Beach Police Department, the city attorney and Bayfront to discuss a rash of AWOLs and increased police presence on Feb. 27. That day, Bayfront’s management delivered a plan of correction, essentially a promise to bring the facility under control. But calls for police service and AWOLs increased, particularly in May and June. Weston said DSS continued to work with Bayfront and that several children were moved to alternate homes. After that, beginning in July, calls for police service dropped.

“Group homes are not locked facilities,” he said, explaining what DSS told city officials in meetings about AWOLs. “It is very typical for many youth living in group homes to attend school and other activities outside the home.”

The corner outside Patricia Cronan’s house in east Long Beach.

Weston also said DSS has been responsive to complaints from neighbors. One of the staffers mentioned in Katherine Ioramo’s complaint, for example, had been fired after a DSS investigation. He said the department was also looking into the alleged fight witnessed by Robby Redar.

DSS, Bayfront and county officials are scheduled to gather again on Sept. 2 for a “non-compliance meeting,” Weston said.

The department had held similar meetings with FamiliesFirst, but ultimately failed to prevent it from unraveling.

I asked Weston if DSS feared a similar outcome at Bayfront. His answer was indirect. He pointed at the reform legislation pending in the state Senate, which DSS helped author.

“The department is aware of and addressing concerns regarding the negative outcomes associated with long term group care” he said.

author photo

Joaquin Sapien has covered criminal justice, military healthcare, and environmental issues for ProPublica since 2008.

Comments powered by Disqus