ESCONDIDO — San Pasqual Academy, a foster youth program in Escondido, will be allowed to stay open at least temporarily after a San Diego judge granted a petition that keeps the program from being closed while the case goes to trial.
In March, the school, which has also served as a residential home for wards of the Juvenile Court system since 2001 and is capable of housing nearly 200 kids on-site, was ordered to close its doors by Oct. 1 by state and county officials.
A group of former academy students, staff, and volunteers subsequently filed a lawsuit with the San Diego Superior Court in August, asking the court to declare the state’s decision unlawful and to order that the program be allowed to remain open indefinitely.
On December 3, Judge Robert Dahlquist granted a preliminary injunction in the case that will allow the academy to stay open at least until the case goes to trial and a final decision is issued in the matter.
Attorneys for the academy hailed Dahlquist’s decision as a victory that they say is a crucial step in allowing the program to continue to serve the foster care needs of San Diego County.
“Now that this injunction has been issued, there’s no reason to believe that this place won’t be open indefinitely,” said Charles LiMandri with LiMandri & Jonna LLP, the law firm representing San Pasqual Academy. “This decision provides the basis for the state and the county to continue to operate a one of a kind extremely successful facility for teenagers who are the most in need of it and the most disenfranchised foster youth with nowhere else to go.”
“This is an amazing result for any kids hoping to transfer into San Pasqual Academy,” said the program’s residential director Tia Moore in a statement on the ruling. “The Academy…needs to be an option for foster youth in San Diego County.”
LiMandri said that he expects a permanent injunction to be issued reaffirming the preliminary decision once the case goes to trial in several months (an exact trial date has not yet been determined).
The California Department of Social Services and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency had ordered that the academy be closed in accordance with the California Continuum of Care Reform Act (AB 403).
That law, passed in 2015, mandated that “group” or “congregate” homes like the San Pasqual Academy be closed or converted to short-term residential centers, with the goal being to prioritize the placement of juveniles within traditional foster families instead of group homes.
While San Pasqual Academy is licensed by the state as a group home, county and state lawmakers were able to work in a provision—referred to as Section 121—to AB 403 that specifically allowed the academy to remain open under conditions specified in the bill.
Subsequently, in 2016, the county and the state agreed to allow the academy to run as a pilot program at least through the end of 2021.
However, in a memo to the county issued in February, the state claimed that Section 121 was only meant to keep the academy open temporarily, and ordered the county to close the facility by October.
In his preliminary injunction, judge Dahlquist ruled that the state had misinterpreted Section 121. While the state had argued that the section required the academy to demonstrate how it could fall under the requirements of a licensed short-term residential center authorized by AB 403, Dahlquist ruled that in fact, the law put the burden onto the state to carve out an appropriate licensing category that the academy could fit into.
“Both the State and the County have misinterpreted Section 121.” the injunction read. “Under Section 121, the State has the obligation to determine or create a licensing category that would permit the San Pasqual Academy to continue to operate…The State has not complied with this obligation.”
The state Department of Social Services declined to comment on the ruling.
“We are currently reviewing the ruling and the Board of Supervisors will make the determination on what next steps to take,” said Sarah Sweeney, a spokesperson for the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.
Both the Department of Social Services and the Health and Human Services Agency, along with the directors of each organization, were named parties in the lawsuit.
“It’s great news and a wonderful first step,” said Jim Desmond, supervisor for San Diego County District 5, regarding the court’s ruling. Desmond has previously expressed support for keeping the program running. “Since my visit earlier this year [to the academy] and hearing the incredible stories from current and past students, I have made it a top priority to try and keep SPA open. I look forward to working with the San Pasqual Academy and helping all foster care youth.”
Dahlquist’s ruling did not grant a part of the plaintiff’s lawsuit that would have forced the state to continue funding the program indefinitely. Instead, the judge deflected the issue back to state and county lawmakers, expressing that the issue of funding for the academy is outside of the jurisdiction of the court.
“The decision whether to fund and operate the San Pasqual Academy is a policy decision that falls within the authority of the executive and legislative branches of government,” Dahlquist said.
San Pasqual Academy is financially supported through a combination of state, county, and federal funding.
While LiMandri said that he does not expect the state or county to discontinue funding for the program, he emphasized that the plaintiffs will be ready to take these entities back to court if they attempt to weaken the academy by denying it financial support.
“We will revisit this issue in court if they try to thwart the judge’s ruling by denying SPA funding, although I do not believe they are planning on doing so,” the attorney said.
Limandri emphasized the unique role that he said the academy plays in the community, calling the center a one-of-a-kind program that he says has shown unprecedented success in taking troubled youths and reintegrating them into their communities.
“It’s time for the government to see that this program is performing exceptionally well…San Pasqual takes kids with a history of the worst kinds of outcomes and turns them into a population with the best of outcomes,” Limandri said. The attorney also noted that the program has a 96% graduation rate, with a majority of academy participants going on to enroll in college after leaving.
The academy is unique in that it is licensed as both a residential facility and a school, with juveniles (generally 12-17) placed in the program being expected to participate in classes full time.
The center functions as a public-private partnership between the county and New Alternatives, a San Diego-based nonprofit focused on children’s behavioral health.