Sonoma County Children’s Village closing – Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Sonoma County Children’s Village, a haven for 84 foster children since its opening in 2006, announced Friday it is closing because of financial constraints and will return care of 16 children to child welfare officials in Sonoma, Mendocino and Solano counties.

The closure, effective Oct. 19, marks the end, at least temporarily, of a local foster care model based on keeping siblings together, backed by a $5 million community fundraising effort that included former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and his wife, Jennifer.

Genie Del Secco, president of the Children’s Village board, said the population of 16 foster children in a program built for 24 was economically unsustainable, exactly the same situation officials cited early last year.

The village, a cluster of four homes on a 2.2-acre site in southeast Santa Rosa, needs at least 22 children to cover its costs, officials said. The village operates on a $2 million annual budget, with 75 percent of the funding from the federal and state government and the rest from donations.

Del Secco said the board’s action Thursday night, framed as a suspension of services rather than a shutdown, was a “tough decision.” But it came just 15 months before a state deadline to close most group homes for foster children by Jan. 1, 2017, part of a shift toward more family-like settings for the children, who have been removed from their biological families by the courts.

“I’m just heartbroken,” said Gene Crozat, a Santa Rosa businessman and Children’s Village supporter.

Crozat and other backers and board members gathered at the village Friday afternoon, when the 16 children were told of the closure.

Counselors were on hand, inflatable bounce toys were brought in and a pizza dinner was planned to ease the abrupt news to the children, seven girls and nine boys from age 5 to 16, said Anjana Utarid, executive director of the nonprofit organization.

“We’re trying to do this in a real therapeutic, gentle style,” she said.

Crozat, board member Jodi Shubin and Tricia Dickinson, one of the village’s founding organizers, expressed frustration that lobbying county and state officials had failed to save the program, which they believe meets the state’s goal of a family-like setting for foster children with an emphasis on keeping siblings together.

“They (offficials) all know it but no one will create space for us to be here,” Dickinson said.

Crozat, who has funded three trips to Disneyland for the village’s children, said he was “ashamed of our government. There’s a lack of caring.”

Seven of the 16 children are in sibling groups of two or three; six were placed from Sonoma County, seven from Mendocino and three from Solano. The village has solicited foster child placements from as far away as Placer and Kern counties in an effort to fill the facility, Anjana said

Following the state trend, Sonoma County has cut back on group home placements of foster children, said Nick Honey, Family, Youth and Children’s Services director with the county Human Services Department. In August, there were 53 foster children in group homes, down from 114 in August 2010, he said.

“Every child deserves the possibility of living with a family,” Honey said.

Social workers are seeking placements for the six Sonoma County children at the village, he said. If no other openings are found, the children will go to Valley of the Moon Children’s Home, a county-operated emergency shelter.

In 2013, the state set limits — ranging from two months to a year, based on age — on the time foster children may stay in group homes. A bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature requires the closure of group homes, except those serving foster children who require high levels of care, in 2017.

Dickinson said the village was created in anticipation of the shift away from group homes. Each of the village’s four homes is staffed by “village parents,” and there are four apartments for seniors who act as surrogate grandparents.

The children maintain a garden that grows some of their food, and they recently harvested pumpkins for Halloween.

“There’s nothing like it” in the county, and maybe the country, Dickinson said.

Children’s Village was forged out of community angst over the still-unsolved murder of Georgia Moses, a 12-year-old Santa Rosa girl whose body was found in Petaluma in 1997.

The village’s advocates agree that foster children do best in family homes, but they say it’s hard to place multiple siblings together and they often get scattered by the system. Children’s Village was created to overcome that problem.

“It’s a beautiful model,” Anjana said. “The kids are awesome.”

The village is retaining its license, and the board will meet Oct. 22 to consider its alternatives for the future.

“We have a lot to sort out,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.