"Could you imagine if this was your nephew, your niece, your grandchild or your child," Social worker Lorraine Ramirez said while fighting back tears.
Social workers called out county officials for not having an adequate place for children to stay while they're waiting to be placed with a foster family.
Union members are speaking out about inadequate conditions for youth who are removed from their families. Workers say kids are staying overnight in the Dept. of Social Services building on yoga mats on the ground on desks. @ABC30 pic.twitter.com/GligsbRPPN— Jessica Harrington (@JessicaABC30) October 14, 2021
"The children are already traumatized as we walk them away from their home, but when they arrive in these conditions, these children are re-traumatized," said social worker Yolanda Reyes.
Pictures provided by the Service Employees International Union Local 521 showed children sleeping on yoga mats on top of desks and on the ground in multiple Fresno County Protective Services offices.
Staff said beyond a place to sleep, there isn't a place for children to shower or nutritional food for them to eat.
One social worker said the children lash out, damaging the facility.
Staff are stressed, fatigued and concerned with their safety.
"We have witnessed youth breaking office equipment, breaking glass frames, destroying furniture and or attempting to harm themselves," said Ramirez.
Jean Rousseau, the Fresno County Administrative Officer, showed up at the demonstration speaking directly to some of those workers.
"I apologize for it getting to this point," said Rousseau.
The state is phasing out group homes for foster youth and stopped the practice of sending children out of state for care.
While the changes may be well-meaning, Rousseau said they have eliminated about half of all eligible foster care homes.
Then came the pandemic and a high turnover rate among social workers, creating staffing shortages.
Rousseau said he learned about the issues last week and toured the social services building himself Wednesday.
Thursday, Rousseau said he authorized an emergency order to buy hygiene items, clothes, cots and blow up mattresses.
"What we're doing now is not really, it's not licensed, it's not approved by the state, but we have no choice," said Rousseau.
The county is also converting an old office building at the former University Medical Center as a temporary living space.
The facility will be used until the new child welfare building at the old Costco location in Clovis is completed.
It's expected to be done just before Thanksgiving.
But tensions ran high as some social workers said they didn't understand how the county didn't know this was happening and didn't do something sooner.
While county officials work on a solution, at the state level, Assemblymember Jim Patterson said he sent a letter to Governor Newsom asking the state to step in and help immediately.
"We cannot allow this to continue any longer. These children are the most needy and we really, really do have to get them in places where they are cared for," Patterson said.
County of Fresno sent Action News a statement in response, which said in part:
The County of Fresno is concerned about the amount of time some of our youth with high-level needs spend in County offices prior to their placement in a home or other facility. There are contributing factors impacting counties all over California. The Continuum of Care Reform from AB403, implemented in 2017, as well as the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), signed into law in 2018, revised standards and added significant new requirements for residential care facilities, thereby significantly reducing the number of placement opportunities for our youth with the most complex needs. All California counties, Child Welfare and Probation departments are significantly impacted.
Additionally, in December 2020, the State decertified all out-of-state facilities for high needs youth, which increased demand for the already limited placement resources. Further adding to the challenges, other state reforms have limited the number of youth eligible to stay in Juvenile Justice programs and requiring alternative placement support. These regulatory changes have resulted in considerable difficulty for the County to secure appropriate placement for a small number of our youth who experience particularly complex mental health issues or have suicidal or violent behaviors. California counties have yet to receive additional funding for these new challenges.
Current Fresno County facilities and restrooms receive regular cleaning protocols and janitorial service. Due to limited food pantries and no kitchen appliances except microwaves, staff provide various snacks and food from local fast-food restaurants. The Child Welfare Services often makes arrangements with care providers for youths to shower due to the lack of bathing facilities at County offices, but they always have access to restrooms.
Fresno County is proactively responding to this complex situation both through our facilities and legislative advocacy.