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Out of Options, California Ships Hundreds of Troubled Children Out of State

One 14-year-old boy’s search for care takes him to Utah as his home state struggles to safeguard its most challenging children.

At 14, Deshaun Becton’s life is a roadmap to California’s faltering efforts to care for its most troubled children.

Over more than a dozen turbulent years, he lived with a half-dozen foster families and in five different group homes. Now he is among the more than 900 children that California sends to out-of-state residential facilities, most of them in Utah, a ProPublica analysis shows.

Each of these children represents a surrender of sorts: a tacit acknowledgement that California — the nation’s biggest and, by some measures, richest state — somehow has no good answer for them.

In the late 1990s, after a 16-year-old boy died from abuse at an Arizona boot camp, California pledged not to export its troubled youth to out-of-state group homes and juvenile detention facilities that didn’t meet certain standards. The number of kids sent away plummeted.

Today, however, the state is grasping for options anew.

California has shuttered most of its secure facilities for youth and done away with almost all beds for children in psychiatric hospitals. It has moved to curtail the use of group homes, partly because, as ProPublica has reported, several have melted down into chaos in recent years. Most recently, the state has adopted reforms meant to keep children in need of acute care as close to home as possible, pumping money into county programs to create new centers and recruit foster families.

At the same time, California is sending more and more children to facilities out of state — some as far away as Florida. Indeed, the number of children sent from probation and child welfare agencies across the state has more than tripled since 2008.

“What’s happening in California is dishonest,” said Ken Berrick, the founder of Seneca Family of Agencies, a major child services agency based in Oakland. “We’re saying we don’t want locked facilities here and we don’t want group homes, so instead we’re sending kids to Utah where we can’t monitor them. What’s that about? It’s just wrong.”

There are signs that California has a limited ability to guarantee the health and welfare of the children it sends beyond its borders.

For one thing, state officials struggle even to keep track of how many children they’ve sent away. They couldn’t provide a total. Using several different sources of state data, ProPublica calculated that county probation departments in 2015 had some 235 children living out of state; child welfare agencies in 2015 had another 52 placed outside California; and local school districts had more than 600, including Deshaun Becton.

California’s Department of Social Services conducts occasional inspections of out-of-state facilities where California agencies have placed children. Earlier this year, records show, at a facility just over the Nevada border, California inspectors responded to a complaint that children were not being adequately fed. Days later there was a riot at the facility, with two of its buildings set on fire. Only afterward did the inspectors corroborate the complaint and begin removing children. In Colorado, inspectors worried in October 2014 that a facility housing California children was vulnerable to targeting by sex traffickers. It took a year before children were removed and California decertified the home.

ProPublica sent DSS a list of questions concerning the hundreds of California children being cared for out of state, including why such placements were needed and how the state was ensuring the children remained safe. Michael Weston, a spokesman for DSS, sent a general response acknowledging that California had run out of options for many of the children but maintaining that DSS was meeting all of its obligations for monitoring and safeguarding the welfare of those sent away.

Deshaun’s long journey to find a safe and effective level of care has exhausted his parents and drained their finances. Lamont Becton, Deshaun’s father, is a firefighter; Deshaun’s mother, Veronice, is a registered nurse. They have met with dozens of experts, driven thousands of miles to rescue Deshaun from one facility after another, kept in touch with their son via Skype when he was assigned to a horse ranch in a remote corner of Utah.

Through it all, they have repeatedly asked themselves a basic question: How can California not be capable of better for Deshaun? His problems — post-traumatic stress, mood disorders, violent outbursts – are significant. Yet can it really be best for troubled, vulnerable children like Deshaun to be sent to other parts of the country in pursuit of adequate supervision and treatment?

“What I don’t understand is why aren’t there any options here?” said Veronice. “Is it really about the children? It’s not. If it was, you’d want these kids to be near their families.”

The Bectons recognize the challenge Deshaun presents. He consumes a daily diet of anti-psychotic medications to control his behavior. He has tested his committed family’s best efforts, and he has exasperated the staffs of group homes across the state. His care has cost, by a rough accounting, more than $1 million to his home county and the state of California.

The family has also experienced the risk of out-of-state placements firsthand. In May of 2012, Deshaun was sent to a home in Kansas where he was once restrained by staff, face-down, for nearly 90 minutes. Officials in Kansas soon recommended Deshaun be sent to Mount Pleasant Academy, a horse ranch in Utah, which advertises itself as specializing in children addicted to pornography. Officials at the ranch quickly realized it was an inappropriate placement for Deshaun, but before his parents could remove him, he wound up with scrapes and bruises from encounters with staff members.

Just before Christmas, Deshaun entered a secure psychiatric facility in Utah, his third out-of-state placement. The Bectons have learned to limit their expectations. They wish mostly that he will be safe, and that he might make some small progress toward stability with the right combination of medication and therapy.

“We can paint a picture to somebody that makes him look like a monster,” said Lamont Becton. “Unfortunately, he came into this world with some issues that weren’t necessarily his fault. But he is a great kid with a good heart. He’s really just searching for love.”

Veronice and Lamont Becton have grown accustomed to living without Deshaun in their home in Antioch, California. (Jessica Dimmock, special to ProPublica)

Deshaun’s mother was 14 when she gave birth to him on Jan. 30, 2001. They spent their first night together in a hotel, and over the next several years mother and child bounced from emergency shelters to foster homes to the care of relatives. Court records show they ricocheted up and down the state, sometimes together, often apart.

When Deshaun was three, a young couple considered adopting him. But medical records show he suffered “meltdowns that lasted hours,” and frequently bit, kicked and screamed at those who came near him. The couple became overwhelmed. They eventually drove Deshaun to the Solano County Child Welfare office and left him.

Enter, almost by accident, Veronice and Lamont Becton, a working class, African-American couple from Oakland and its suburbs. The Bectons had casually discussed adoption for years. They both came from supportive, two-parent, middle class families, and they were proud of the life they had started together, one of stability and faith. They had one son, but also a spare bedroom room in their newly purchased, three-bedroom home in Antioch.

The couple first agreed to take Deshaun in as a foster child. When he arrived, all his possessions had been packed into a single trash bag. It wasn’t much — some baby clothes and a stuffed animal.

“I maybe lived in two places my entire life,” said Veronice, who has been unable to shake the image of the trash bag. “And you know, when I would go visit my grandparents, I had my little luggage.”

Deshaun wasn’t easy. He stayed up far later than had their older son, Jonah. He would scream and cry. But two months in, it did not feel like anything the Bectons could not manage.

“At that point, there was no giving him back,” Veronice said. “In my mind, we’d already adopted him.”

The ensuing weeks were something of a honeymoon. They had a party. There was cake and balloons and relatives. Deshaun was giddy from all the attention. But as home life took on its long-term routines— shifts at the hospital for Veronice; commutes to the firehouse for Lamont; Jonah to school and sports practice— Deshaun quickly unraveled.

The night terrors intensified. Jonah had asked to share a room with Deshaun, to embrace the role of older brother. But that arrangement disintegrated as Deshaun kept Jonah up all night, throwing toys, smearing feces on the bedroom walls, carving deep scratch marks into the sheetrock with his tiny nails.

During the day, the Bectons did their best to treat him as a normal child. They got him in an art program, then pre-school, but soon the calls rang off the hook from teachers. He was disruptive. He would bite and kick his classmates. He’s “not the right fit for this setting,” the teachers would say, trying to be polite.

A social worker told them Deshaun likely had something called “reactive attachment disorder,” a condition that develops in children who’ve been abused or neglected in their early years of life. It often manifests in extreme, sometimes violent episodes. She gave the Bectons a photocopy of a book on the subject.

“We were so naïve,” Lamont said.

By the time Deshaun was in kindergarten, his parents began the process of enrolling him in an “Individualized Education Program,” a plan laid out by the school district for children who have special needs. By first grade, Deshaun had to travel to a school in Concord, a 30-minute drive. To get there, Deshaun boarded a bus each morning. He started fights, he spit on other children. He kicked the back of the bus driver’s seat. Eventually the school district opted to take him to school privately, in his own van.

“It was such a horrible feeling,” Lamont said, bowing his head. “To rely on people to help you with your own child; to be dependent; I never thought I’d have to make sure someone else could get my kid to school.”

Jonah Becton has done his best to be an attentive older brother to Deshaun. (Jessica Dimmock, special to ProPublica)

He and Veronice rattled off all the activities they experimented with to relieve their son of his boundless, often destructive energy: physical outlets like karate, soccer and football. “He liked to kick things,” Lamont joked. They tried creative outlets like music, art and therapy of all kinds. They tried discipline, making him do community service when he misbehaved: cleaning up litter, scrubbing graffiti off walls at a nearby public school. The janitors grew to love the Bectons.

Lamont kept a list of all the professionals they’d met over the years: teachers, psychologists, coaches, social workers, counselors, lawyers. A year ago, the list was close to 100.

In 2011, the Bectons got a taste of what California then considered the latest, best answer for children such as Deshaun: wraparound care.

A team of social service workers would come to the Becton home and tend to Deshaun directly. Soon there were five people, working in shifts, in and out of the home. The counselors were earnest and dedicated, but they struck the Bectons as young and inexperienced.

“The only way I could explain it is, when you have an open, gaping wound, it’s not time to put a Band-Aid on,” Veronice said. “You’re going to have to suture that wound and put pressure dressing on it.” Wraparound care, she said, was like a Band-Aid and “we were like… hemorrhaging blood.”

California offered another option – a group home with trained staff and expert support. Soon enough, Deshaun was sent to a home in Davis. It was designated a Level 14, for the most challenging children. It had a campus and classrooms and dormitories. Psychiatrists and therapists would be on hand. The $10,000 a month in costs would be borne by the family’s home county.

Deshaun arrived at the home, known as FamiliesFirst, in March 2012. The first weeks weren’t easy. He missed home and told his parents so in regular phone calls. But over the next several months, he progressed. He forged bonds with a counselor and a social worker, he spent hours in the arts center and the Bectons noticed that his emotions had steadied. He could cool his temper using techniques his therapist had taught him.

But FamiliesFirst came undone – quickly and disastrously. The staff was slashed. Children, including Deshaun, went missing for days or longer. The police were called hundreds of times – to save children or to arrest them.

The home’s demise was the focus of an April 2015 ProPublica examination – one that revealed a wholesale failure of care and protection involving the home administrators, government overseers and the local police.

The Bectons felt the extent of that failure acutely on the evening of May 31, 2013. Veronice was preparing to go to dinner with a friend when she got a call from Audrie Meyer, the home’s executive director. Meyer said Deshaun had fled the facility the night before and something terrible happened. He’d been “assaulted in the community,” she said.

The Bectons raced to reclaim their boy. They took his picture when they picked him up that night. He appeared traumatized, sullen and scratched up, his eyes badly bloodshot. The home eventually was closed, and Deshaun wound up back in Antioch.

The search for California’s next best solution got underway.

“So how do you find a place?” Lamont asked. “You go to your laptop and you type in ‘boys group home’ and you go, ‘Wow, those are lovely pictures.’”

The Bectons say the approach of government agencies in finding the right fit for Deshaun has often felt as random and scattershot as theirs. Some of this, they accept, is a consequence of his distinctive profile: he exhibits some symptoms of autism, yet not in a manner severe enough to qualify him for some of the most advanced care.

But some of it feels like a lack of consistency and coordination on the part of the authorities to properly diagnose and treat Deshaun. His mood swings do not result from a diagnosed psychosis, and yet for years he has been prescribed anti-psychotic medications. His evaluations by government screening panels can feel perfunctory, and his resulting placements determined more by the availability of a bed somewhere – anywhere – than by a considered strategy for success.

A drawing done by Deshaun. With help, Deshaun’s mother thinks his art skills could develop into a real talent. (Jessica Dimmock, special to ProPublica)

And so Deshaun eventually landed at a facility called the Milhous Treatment Center in the foothills of Northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The home serves 38 boys in six houses on a bucolic 1,000-acre ranch. The Bectons viewed the expanse of the campus as a selling point. They figured it might make it harder for Deshaun to run off. The home’s administrators evinced confidence that they could help Deshaun with the right mix of therapy, schooling and recreation.

But the administrators did not mention that Milhous had recently been in trouble with the California Department of Social Services for a string of violations.

Records show that in 2010, the department found that a staff worker had allegedly molested a child resident on two separate occasions. In 2011, the facility was cited for filing late incident reports. In 2012, according to another report, the staff had strip-searched children. For each violation, the department demanded the home provide a “plan of correction” – a legally binding document that is meant to show how exactly a group home’s staff will address specific violations. By January 2013, the home was late on one of those, too, forcing the state to take the rare step of financially penalizing the home.

The problems did not end with Deshaun’s arrival. Staff turnover contributed to Deshaun changing therapists four times. Veronice said that at the end of Deshaun’s time there, the home had also lost its staff psychiatrist. As a result, Deshaun’s monthly psychiatric consultations were provided over Skype with a doctor who lived in another state.

In December 2014, Deshaun ended up fleeing. He disappeared with another boy for some four hours before he was found on the side of a highway wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and cowboy boots.

In an interview, Milhous Children’s Services Chief Executive Officer Dan Petrie defended the agency’s overall record and its treatment of Deshaun. He said that Milhous had filed the overwhelming majority of its incident reports on time. Of the strip-searching incident, Petrie said the children had kept their shorts on during hunts for marijuana. It happened on a single occasion, he said, and the staff member been properly disciplined.

Petrie said Deshaun had been “easily in the top 10 of the most challenging cases I have seen in my career."

“Unfortunately,” he said, “California is seriously lacking options for kids that need such intensive services."

By the end of 2014, the Bectons were done with Milhous. And Milhous was done with Deshaun.

The family hired yet one more consultant to plot out yet one more alternative.

Under California law, public school districts must provide an education to all students who live in them. If a student has a mental health need that his home district can’t meet, then the district must pay for that student’s education elsewhere. That is how Deshaun was sent to Utah.

Mount Pleasant Academy in Utah treats children with sexually aggressive behavioral disorders. (Kim Raff, special to ProPublica)

Deshaun and nearly 600 other California children did not end up in Utah by accident.

Today, there are an estimated 100 or more homes in Utah meant to care for and safeguard some of the country’s most troubled children – more than any other state, experts say. California has contracts with 20 of them, and it sends them a range of children who have been through California’s juvenile justice, foster care or special education systems.

The niche industry traces its roots to homes founded and run by Mormons in the early 1970’s. Many in the faith saw caring for disturbed children and their often desperate families as consistent with their mandate to do good works.

“You find more of those people who are idealistic and willing to do this work within the Mormon population than you would have out in the world,” said Dr. Robert Crist, a psychiatrist and a co-founder of the Provo Canyon School, one of the earliest Utah homes for troubled children. “The obligation to young men is to treat them fairly and teach them good principles.”

Roughly 40 of the facilities in Utah are members of the National Association for Therapeutic Schools and Programs, a national trade organization that represents such facilities in Washington, D.C. Trade group officials say all members must prove they employ well-qualified workers and are either licensed by their home state or meet voluntary accreditation standards. 

But trouble has erupted over the years at homes throughout Utah. Perhaps the most damning example involved a network of homes operated by a former worker at Provo Canyon. A lawsuit on behalf of 350 children against the network’s founder, Robert Lichfield, had for years tarnished the entire industry. The 3,000 page complaint— built on testimony from nearly all 350 children and multiple depositions of current and former employees — accused Lichfield of hiring woefully underqualified workers who used cruel, sometimes violent methods of discipline, including long periods of solitary confinement or even beatings. 

For more than a decade, the suit wound its way through state and federal courts. More than one judge recused themselves. Ultimately, many of the claims in the suit were dismissed, and a settlement was reached on the remaining issues.

“Frankly, I never thought we found a judge in Utah who was willing to deal with these hard and large issues,” said Windle Turley, the attorney who filed the suit.

In an emailed statement, Lichfield sought to distance himself from the troubled homes and discredit the complaints against him.

“I did not operate the facilities as they were independently owned and operated,” he said, adding that he believed the students “were just looking for some free money” and “were very upset with being sent to the schools where they couldn’t do drugs or other inappropriate behaviors.”

Many of the homes tied to Lichfield in Utah and across the country have been closed in the wake of scandal.

Thomas Burton, a Salt Lake City attorney who has sued multiple Utah group homes on behalf of children who allege abuse in them. (Kim Raff, special to ProPublica)

Spurred in part by these incidents, Utah’s legislature passed a bill in 2005 expanding the number and type of homes it would formally license and oversee. But efforts at adopting national standards that would be enforced by federal regulators have been defeated, in part by the work of the national trade association.

Clifford Brownstein, executive director of the association, said the federal standards appeared aimed at punishing the worst actors in the business even when some programs are outstanding.

“They haven’t been well thought out,” Brownstein said of the federal proposals. He said his members prefer working with state rather than federal regulators, he said.

Diane Moore, director of licensing at Utah’s Department of Human Services, said the agency’s “primary focus” was verifying that “critical health and safety standards are met in order to protect the well-being of all residents” at the homes and facilities.

“Regardless of who the players are, we license each facility to a set standard of criteria provided by state statute and rule,” she said. “We thoroughly investigate complaints and incidents using a unique set of criteria, and we utilize an appropriate level of corrective action for any rule violations that are found.” Thomas Burton, a Salt Lake City attorney who has filed 25 lawsuits against facilities in the state, said whatever regulations Utah has are clearly ineffective. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t have so much work.

“There is no oversight,” Burton said. “When you look at the complaints from kids, you often see that the children are dismissed as inveterate liars.”

At Red Rock Canyon, a facility in St. George, a worker pleaded guilty in 2014 to multiple counts of sexually abusing three teenagers in his care, one of whom was just 13. The facility did not properly report the abuse to Utah regulators or the police. But Utah has allowed the home to remain open, accepting Red Rock’s assurances that it would retrain its staff.

It turns out the owners of Red Rock Canyon also run the horse ranch Deshaun arrived at last August. Both the home, Mount Pleasant Academy, and the Bectons realized almost immediately it was not a good fit.

A month after Deshaun arrived, Veronice received a copy of notes recorded by his therapist. Except they were for another child.

Meanwhile, administrators at the home concluded that Deshaun did not need treatment for issues of sexually aggressive behavior, something the home advertised itself as specializing in. What he needed, they wrote to the Bectons, was intensive, individualized care – something the home said it did not have the staff to provide. They suggested he be sent to Red Rock Canyon. It would be his sixth placement in three years. The Bectons asked for time.

In October, the home’s staff informed the Bectons that Deshaun’s face had been scraped while he was being restrained – pinned down atop some gravel in the parking lot of the home. When Lamont visited that month, he was surprised by the severity of Deshaun’s injury. The scrape stretched from above his son’s eyebrow down beneath his cheekbone.

In November, Veronice began arranging for Deshaun to come home for Thanksgiving. The trip never happened, and Veronice had to settle for a Skype session with her son on Nov. 23.

When Deshaun’s face showed up on her computer screen, she saw the faint outline of a black eye. Deshaun, in his halting way, said it happened during a restraint triggered by a dispute he had with another student over a roll of duct tape. Veronice had to request a formal report, and when it came it said that Deshaun was out of control and had to be restrained. According to the report, Deshaun gave the black eye to himself.

Veronice made plans to remove Deshaun immediately. And there was no way she was going to send him to Red Rock Canyon.

Jerry Spanos says his Heritage School outside Provo is a model for how to care for troubled children. (Kim Raff, special to ProPublica)

Utah is not bereft of what appear to be quality options. Jerry Spanos, a former Mormon missionary, is the chief executive officer of the Heritage School, a 19-acre residential treatment center set in a narrow valley that divides the outskirts of Provo from the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains. The campus is comprised of 11 gleaming 12-bed dormitories. There is a 627-seat performing arts center where students have performed The Wiz and West Side Story. There’s a rock-climbing wall, a soccer field, a basketball gym, a horse stable and a heated, indoor pool.

Spanos’ staff includes 17 therapists and two psychiatrists. They are meant to get to know the kids as individuals: their triggers, their trauma, their history, their skills and their weaknesses.

“I didn’t go into this because I wanted to make a ton of money,” Spanos said. “I did it because I wanted to help children.”

There might have been better placements in Utah, but the Bectons’ first priority was just retrieving their son. Thus on Dec. 3, Veronice pulled up to the log cabin walls of the Mount Pleasant Academy horse ranch. The building is tucked at the end of a curling gravel driveway off a road that winds around a trailer park and an outcropping of trees. There was little evidence the staff was prepared to return Deshaun to his mother. Deshaun eventually ambled into a basement where his mother waited. He was disheveled and bleary-eyed. There was dirt in his hair, dust on his blue jeans and mud on his black parka.

Veronice held Deshaun tight, and the two of them soon marched up the long, sloping driveway. They stopped at a nearby gas station so Deshaun could clean himself up. He used a restroom to change clothes while Veronice opened the trunk to organize a pile of jackets, sweatpants and gloves that lay loosely atop two half-full garbage bags: one carried a tangled of shirts, pants, drawings, and Star Wars books. Another mostly held dirty socks and video game cords.

“I can’t believe this,” Veronice said, visibly distraught and hoisting the bag before her. “This is the way he came to me. And now here he is like this all over again.”

A senior official with Mount Pleasant said he was eager to talk to ProPublica about the ranch and Deshaun’s stay, but over several weeks he did not make himself available.

On the road, Deshaun opened up.

“Mom, can I tell you something really amazing?” he asked, backing into a story about being allowed on a recreational trip as a reward for his recent good behavior. “That was the first time I ever had tears of joy in my whole life. I never had that feeling and it’s a great feeling.”

Deshaun rambled on, his long tangents of thought sometimes leading to keen, surprising insights about himself and the world around him. He was remarkably self-aware and honest about his condition.

Veronice has grown accustomed to these versions of Deshaun. He can be charming and funny and exceedingly polite. His imagination can be vivid, and Veronice over the years has marveled at his natural gift for art – he can make something remarkable out of almost anything, be it bottle caps or duct tape.

“Mom didn’t really look that excited to pick me up,” he said to his father on a cellphone, cracking his family up. “The first thing I’m going to do when I get back home is take a warm bath.”

Such moments make Veronice want to keep Deshaun home.

“And that’s the thing,” Veronice said. “That’s been the most challenging piece. Because when he gets in a program, they go ‘This kid’s going to be a dream. And his family is involved?’ And then, you know…”

“Every program he’s been in, he’s never graduated.”

Veronice Becton hugs her son Deshaun outside a gas station. She had just retrieved him from his second out-of-state group home placement. (Kim Raff, special to ProPublica)

More than 15 years ago, California was shaken by a tragedy that grew out of sending children out of state with little oversight to ensure their safety.

On March 2, 1998, a 16-year-old from Sacramento named Nicholaus Contreraz died at the Arizona Boys Ranch, a “tough-love” boot camp in the desert. In the days prior, the camp’s staff had forced him to endure physical exercises so intense, in heat so extreme, that his body began to rebel against itself. He ultimately collapsed and succumbed to a respiratory infection. His chest cavity had swelled with two-and-a-half quarts of pus.

California officials immediately demanded to know why a boy born in the state capital had been sent to Arizona as punishment for a juvenile offense. It turned out Contreraz was one of roughly 1,000 California children in who had been sent to boot camps, juvenile detention centers and other programs in other states. California lawmakers quickly discovered the wave of children sent across state lines had been set in motion by two key factors:

Juvenile justice judges and probation officials in the state’s 58 counties were appalled by conditions in California’s notoriously violent youth prisons. Sending California’s children out of state seemed safer. Also, it was often cheaper.

After Contreraz’s death, then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill prohibiting California children from being sent to out-of-state facilities that permitted corporal punishment or barred parental visits. Wilson put the California Department of Social Services in charge of enforcing that mandate, and quickly California children were returned home.

But now, the tide has been reversed and the reasons are familiar enough. California’s detention facilities grew so bad they have been all but eradicated. And its group homes proved such failures that the latest reform plan calls for drastically limiting them, as well.

The plan pushes responsibility for troubled children back to individual counties, giving them some money to help fund alternatives, though it is unclear if that will be enough.

Some counties, challenged to deliver individualized services to children at home, have come to see the financial appeal of sending away children caught up in the juvenile justice system or grappling with profound mental health issues.

“We have had an influx of kids that have mental health issues like schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or are just highly aggressive. And unfortunately, we just don’t have a lot of facilities here that can handle what we have been seeing,” said Amy Jacobs, deputy probation officer for Stanislaus County in California’s central valley, which sent 16 children to out-of-state group homes this past year.

“Lately, when we look to out of state programs, it’s usually because they offer more extensive mental health services,” she said.

Representatives of California public school districts, which are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the out-of-state placements, also say it’s an option of last resort. But a last resort that’s being used plenty.

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“We don’t want to send kids out of state,” said Beth Kauffman, director of psychological services at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest district in the state. “We try to find the least restrictive settings in our community first.”

Kauffman said she’s managed to place fewer children out-of-state in recent years, but there are still some for whom she sees little choice. This past year, she sent away 56, mostly to Utah.

The Department of Social Services currently bears some responsibility for monitoring the welfare of the state’s children once they have been sent elsewhere. But ProPublica’s reporting has showed the department often has trouble effectively monitoring the care of children in its own networks of homes and residential facilities. Even when homes are besieged by violence and sexual assaults, regulators have appeared to move slowly and act indecisively.

Parents and advocates worry that DSS will struggle to monitor conditions of homes in other states and a review of some recent incidents suggests such worries are warranted.

The Rite of Passage Silver State Academy on tribal land in Yerington, Nevada, for instance, has been the site of four riots or major disturbances among residents in the last year. Six months before the first riot, California inspectors visited the facility and gave it high marks. They noted it had “a less tense and volatile environment” than in previous years. An inspector did not visit the home again until Feb. 19, 2015— a full six weeks after there had been violent clashes involving multiple students on back-to-back days in December 2014.

The inspector showed up not to investigate the fights, but to find a resident who had complained he was not being adequately fed. By the time the official from California arrived, the resident had already been moved. Nine days later there was another riot.

Described in one report as a “student rebellion incident,” on the night of February 28, two buildings were set on fire and four workers at the home were injured. The California inspector did not return to the facility for another two weeks. In the meantime, he talked to three former students about the inadequate food claim.

“All students stated with confidence that the amount of food is inadequate,” said the final report, dated March 16 — 17 days after the buildings had been burned.

Over the next several days, the inspector confirmed a number of other allegations: that the facility lacked enough well-trained staff and that those it employed had too often and too aggressively used restraints to subdue children.

Rite of Passage officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Weston, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services, said the department acted responsibly in its oversight of the children at the Nevada home. He said that, because of an “enforcement action,” the home’s administration increased its ratio of staff to children. He said that by June 2015, the facility had reduced the number of children in its care from 120 to 50. Then, in August, it changed leadership.

Today, DSS allows teen girls from California to be housed at the facility.

Benchmark Behavioral Health systems operates this locked psychiatric facility in Bountiful, Utah. It is Deshaun’s latest placement. (Kim Raff, special to ProPublica)

Deshaun’s latest out-of-state residence is a locked facility in Bountiful, Utah. The facility can house 84 children and is run by a company called Benchmark Behavioral Health Systems. The company’s website advertises the facility as a place “high in the Rocky Mountains” that offers “progressive treatment in a beautiful, majestic setting.”

In reality, the facility is a pink stucco building sandwiched by Interstate 15 and a strip of auto repair shops and pawnshops. Earlier this year, a 25-year-old female mental health worker at the facility was charged with sexual assault for allegedly raping a 16-year-old resident.

Benchmark officials did not respond to a request for comment. Kelly Criddle of the Utah Department of Health, which oversees the facility, said state law requires such psychiatric homes to be inspected at least once every five years, and that the Bountiful site had not been inspected by the state since March 2013. He said inspectors did not visit the facility to inquire specifically about the sex abuse charge, opting instead to accept documentation from the facility showing how it planned to address the issue. He said the health department decided the hospital administration did not violate any state laws because it properly responded to the incident.

Back in Antioch, the Bectons stand at one more place of uncertainty and apprehension in a 12-year hunt for help. Their home is filled with evidence of the family’s enduring devotion to Deshaun. Its walls are adorned with photographs of his smiling face. In one, he horses around with Jonah and Lamont. In another he wears his father’s fire helmet.

One photograph holds particular meaning. In it, Deshaun is wearing a Batman costume and is staring resolutely through a mask. There is a quote from Martin Luther King inscribed across his chest. It’s drawn from a book of sermons published by King in 1963 called “Strength to Love.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

The Bectons say they will not give up, but their optimism has been badly damaged. The best they can imagine for Deshaun is a life of modest independence and contribution. A simple job. A safe place to sleep. As for the next facility that might assist him in that pursuit, their hopes are even more modest.

“I’m not looking for a perfect system for Deshaun,” Veronice said. “If I did, I would lose my mind. There is none.”

Help us investigate:If you have experience with or information about interstate child welfare and juvenile detention, email [email protected]

Related stories:For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on California group homes.

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