Two local group homes emptied

State concerned about kids' safety; New Vision directors express shock

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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On the Web

New Vision programs: www.newvisionprograms.com

The state of Washington is removing young residents from two Vancouver group homes that cater to children with serious emotional and behavioral challenges — those who have been "kicked out of foster care" because they were too hard to handle, according to one group home manager.

Two more homes in the chain, based in Lacey, are also being emptied because of state concerns about safety. At least two Washington children were also removed from a home in Clackamas County, Ore.

"We have removed nine children, and served notice that we plan to remove six more," said a Friday morning email to The Columbian from spokesman Thomas Shapley of the Department of Social and Health Services.

New Vision Programs is a private, for-profit business that contracts with the State of Washington to provide group home services for foster children "who need lots and lots and lots of love," said Trent Hall, New Vision program director. The Columbian received several calls last week from New Vision staff members

who said that children were being removed from the local Sharon and Karen Cottage, a home for girls, and the Parkcrest Home, for boys -- as well from two homes in Lacey and one in Clackamas.

Shapley of DSHS provided The Columbian with documents that allege a number of serious incidents and safety concerns -- all of them in 2012. The allegations include everything from an assault and suicide attempt to staff members who reportedly left their houses unsupervised and had not passed state-required background checks before supervising foster children.

Hall and New Vision Executive Director Andre Karam, contacted by telephone Friday, said they addressed all the problems brought up last year and were shocked when the state swooped in — first to officially stop placement of any new children with New Vision, and then to start removing their kids.

It came after many vigorous personal assurances that DSHS trusted and appreciated what New Vision was doing, Karam insisted.

"There was a lot of communication and collaboration to make things better," he said. "And then they came in and took the kids."

A March 25 email from Karam to staff at DSHS says New Vision had been reviewing its policies and writing new rules for six weeks; emails from DSHS to New Vision at around that time says the agency is "excited" about new beds opening up and that "it looks like you have all been working hard."

License not revoked

New Vision's license has not been revoked, Shapley said, "but we had concerns for the safety and well-being of the children in the facilities, and we exercised our discretion to move the children. Our job is to safeguard these children." He said "due process" is now under way to determine whether New Vision's license or contract with the state will be revoked.

Pressed for more detail, Shapley's assistant, Chris Case, responded with an email Friday afternoon: "There were ongoing follow-ups regarding the compliance agreement, including an unannounced comprehensive review. New complaints have also arisen, and they are currently under investigation by (the Department of Licensed Resources).

"The decision to no longer place children at the facility was based solely on the safety of children. We need to make sure that children under our supervision are safe. Based on the additional complaints and information from our comprehensive review, we are concerned about the safety of these children and are in the process of moving them to other placements."

New Vision was featured in The Columbian in 2010 and 2012 when its former Hazel Dell House drew complaints because of improper permitting and many police calls. According to a March 2012 story, there were 50 calls for police to the house since it opened in 2010, including 12 runaway calls and 20 assault calls. In the first six weeks of 2012, police were called to the house 17 times. New Vision eventually vacated that house.

Safety matters

The state grew concerned about New Vision last year, Shapley said, had lots of discussion all fall, and signed corrective "compliance agreements" with New Vision management on Nov. 28 and Dec. 17.

Those agreements, plus a Dec. 13 letter from Rebecca Taylor of DSHS to New Vision Programs, detail the state's concerns at the time: A large backlog of background checks for staff who supervise children; failing to follow legal requirements for staff-to-child ratios for years, despite these requirements being spelled out in contracts; at least one gap in house staffing, when a child came home and found the place empty; and no telephone available at one house for emergency use.

"Three children were left in the care of a staff member who was not cleared and has lengthy criminal history. The staff was working alone and was assaulted, and a child attempted suicide sustaining serious injuries," says the letter from Taylor.

Information was not immediately clear on whether New Vision fulfilled the Dec. 17 compliance agreement, what new problems and complaints were, and what happened between December 2012 and April.

"We are somewhat limited in what information we can provide because of the ongoing investigation," Case said.

Hall and Karam, contacted by phone Friday morning, were on their way to protest in Olympia. They said they feel hamstrung because they don't know exactly what the new complaints and problems are.

"We don't know what they found, either," said Hall. "There was an exit interview and we were told, well, the paperwork is all there, but we still see problems. There was nothing specific."

A letter from Randy Hart, deputy assistant secretary for the state Children's Administration, says the state always has discretion about where it does and doesn't place foster children -- and furthermore, that, because DSHS "has not at this time suspended, revoked, modified or not renewed your license. … There is no legal basis to appeal this decision. This decision is discretionary on the part of my agency, and is not an appealable licensing action."

'Stolen away'

New Vision staffers said their kids are heartbroken, furious and freaked out. It's the last thing they need, according to house manager Daniel Keck, one of the first to call The Columbian.

"Three of my boys were crying, one was barricaded in bed because he didn't want to get stolen away in the middle of the night," Keck said.

"If they move me, I will run" were reportedly the words of one 13-year-old boy with Type 1 diabetes, and a major chip on his shoulder, who has been doing much better since coming to New Vision, according to Hall.

Internal New Vision emails from the manager of the Clackamas house, forwarded by Hall, claim that one boy was to be dropped off "near the house" of his former foster mother in Kent — whose foster license had expired. If she didn't take him in anyway, the email says, Plan B was to bring the boy to a homeless shelter. Another boy was given "a bus pass and hotel vouchers and told, 'Good luck,'" according to the email.

Case denied this. She said all the children are being placed with relatives or in other foster or "group living facilities for teens." She said hotel vouchers, bus passes, homeless shelters and the like are "a rumor."

A Facebook page was started May 9 for people who "have fallen victim to unfair treatment at the hands of Washington State's child services departments."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.