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Group sues San Diego County, state social services to keep San Pasqual Academy open

San Pasqual Academy graduate and employee Natasha Strain speaks about a lawsuit to keep the residential school open.
San Pasqual Academy graduate and employee Natasha Strain speaks along with supporters during the announcement of the lawsuit against the County of San Diego over the closing of San Pasqual Academy during a press conference at the Encore Event Center on Tuesday.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The lawsuit asks a court to order state to create a unique license, funding category for the 20-year-old institution

A group of employees, former students and supporters of San Pasqual Academy filed a lawsuit Tuesday, Aug. 3, against San Diego County and the state of California for refusing to license and fund the boarding school for foster children.

The lawsuit — which names as defendants the County of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency and the California Department of Social Services — asks a judge to make the state issue the school a license to continue to operate.

The filing comes less than a month after the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an extension allowing the campus to stay open and funded through June 2022, so its 52 currently enrolled students could finish out the next school year.

That was a compromise because the state’s Department of Social Services previously had planned for the facility to close in October.

State regulators have cited declining enrollment and recent changes to state and federal foster care policies that deemphasize congregate living in favor of placing foster children in families as reasons to close San Pasqual.

However, the lawsuit and San Pasqual supporters say the 20-year-old residential institution is unlike most congregate facilities serving foster youth. Most of its clients are teenagers who live with adults in cottages on campus and attend school, participate in extra curricular activities and get career training and other services on-site.

Studies of San Pasqual students and graduates show nearly all graduate from high school and many go to college at far higher rates than foster children living with families in community settings, according to the lawsuit.

Since 2018 the campus has been operating under a three-year pilot program because of the new state laws against congregate living for foster children.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the state to create a unique license and funding category for San Pasqual Academy.

“Without judicial relief, hundreds of academy residents and alumni, who sought out the academy as a permanent placement after being shuttled through an average of eight previous foster homes, will be forced again to find a new place to call home,” the lawsuit says. “Such a result is not just morally reprehensible, it is unlawful.”

The complaint says the state’s refusal to license and fund the academy violates the equal protection guarantees in California’s constitution and the foster youth bill of rights — a policy in the state’s code that guarantees foster children 10 and older certain rights including the right to receive information about changes to their placement and case plan.

The suit argues that the Continuum of Care Reform Act (AB 403), which made reforms to California’s foster care system, exempts facilities with a capacity of 184 that were operating prior to January 1, 2015, that offer onsite high school. It argues the state Assembly deliberately created that exemption for San Pasqual, but state social services officials and the county are ignoring that.

According to the lawsuit, after the law was passed, officials with the school began negotiating with the state and county about developing a unique licensing category, which is why a pilot program was adopted. Those conversations led to proposals about how the school could operate, but the state informed the county through a letter that it was terminating the program, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims that the county did not notify students of the academy of the closure; they found out from a story in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Delivering the news of San Pasqual Academy’s closure to its students through a sensational Sunday newspaper article was particularly careless, insensitive, and traumatic — creating much anxiety among students whose homes had always been pulled out from under them, and who are now simply exclaiming ‘Where am I going to live now?’ and ‘Why didn’t anyone care enough to talk to us or anyone here about decisions that change our lives?’” the lawsuit says.

Attorney Paul Jonna speaks along with supporters about the lawsuit at the Encore Event Center on Aug. 3.
Attorney Paul Jonna speaks along with supporters about the lawsuit during a press conference at the Encore Event Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 in San Diego, CA.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nine plaintiffs are listed in the case, including staff members, former students and individuals who participate in the school’s housing and mentorship programs. Several of them and attorneys with the law firm LiMandri & Joann LLP held a press conference at the Encore Event Center Tuesday, Aug. 3, in Kearny Mesa.

Natasha Strain, a San Pasqual graduate, said she has lived in group homes before living there. She credits the school with helping her enroll in college and realize her potential. She has a BA in social work from Cal State San Marcos.

“I am living proof,” she said. “I lived it. I became a good person and I beat the statistics of the foster youth system because of the academy.”

Jean Wheat, a volunteer mentor who lives on campus, said the program works because students feel supported, accepted and loved. She has watched 20 years of students graduate from the school, she said.

“I wouldn’t want to do anything else in my life than what I am doing now,” she said.

The lawsuit was filed with the Superior Court of the State of California in North County. A spokesperson with the California’s Department of Social Services said the agency has not seen the complaint and does not comment on pending litigation.

Sarah Sweeney, a San Diego County spokesperson, said in an email that officials are exploring options for the San Pasqual Academy campus with a focus on supporting foster youth.

“We are working diligently to ensure a smooth, trauma-informed transition toward a future where as many youth as possible live in a loving and supportive environment, while having access to services that help them grow and thrive,” she said in an email.


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