At ‘Freedom House,’ a pattern of neglect

At ‘Freedom House,’ a pattern of neglect

Originally published by LA Times

Los Angeles lawyer Peter Schey has long been a trailblazing courtroom defender of immigrant youth.

He helped argue the Supreme Court case that ensured the right of children without legal status to attend public schools. He also helped secure the Flores settlement — a landmark 1997 agreement to safeguard migrant children held by the government, which gave his legal foundation the right to inspect those shelters.

That case also inspired him to run his own shelter for homeless migrant youths.

Schey opened Casa Libre, or Freedom House, in late 2002 in a historic mansion near MacArthur Park, saying it would care for “the most vulnerable” children.

But Casa Libre has been cited by state officials 143 times for failing to meet standards for state-licensed group homes, and 89 of those were for issues that posed “an immediate risk to the health, safety or personal rights of residents,” a Times investigation found.

Interviews with more than two dozen former employees and residents and a review of hundreds of documents — including 15 years’ worth of state inspection reports — show a pattern of neglect that has persisted despite efforts by workers and residents to inform Schey and the board of directors about problems at the home.

Children have been locked out of the home for hours because there was no staff on-site, forcing some to take shelter outside in a broken-down van. And at times, there has not been enough food, former residents said.

There was violence between the residents and break-ins, according to former residents and workers. The basement frequently flooded. And the roof often leaked, according to former workers and state inspections. Bed bugs infested residents’ mattresses, cockroaches swarmed the kitchen, and some of the boys used drugs in the home, former residents and workers said.

Asked by The Times about conditions at the home, Schey directed the staff of his legal foundation to conduct an investigation.

A report based on that investigation blames one “disgruntled former program director” for some problems at Casa Libre but also accuses him of making false claims about the program.

The Times spoke with 14 current and former Casa Libre workers — including seven former managers — who described various problems throughout the years, including severe lack of staff, poor supervision and Schey’s unresponsiveness when they raised concerns.

The report prepared by Schey’s legal foundation said Casa Libre, which is licensed by the state Department of Social Services to house boys ages 12 to 17, is under new leadership that has “shifted its focus back to its original goals, strengthened internal policies, and raised funds and resources,” to house more residents.

“Most kids I talk to tell me it was the best home they ever lived in,” said Schey, who serves as president of Casa Libre’s board of directors and executive director of the nonprofit group that runs it, which is a sister organization to his legal foundation.

“Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect,” he added in an interview with The Times. “Is it better than being homeless on the streets? No question. Is it better than being in custody? No question. Could we improve? Absolutely. Are we trying to improve? Yes, absolutely.”

Schey — who was named Los Angeles’ “immigrant advocate” in 2017 by the City Council — argued in the interview that other homes probably have a similar number of violations of state rules.

“Pick five shelters in Los Angeles and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if each year licensing finds five or 10 or 15 things that they need to remedy,” he said.

But online records from the Department of Social Services show Casa Libre has had 33 citations since 2017, more than any of the other 143 licensed group homes in Los Angeles County.

The average for the county homes was about five during the four-year period for which online records are available.

When Miguel Elias Guarchaj found Casa Libre in 2015, he thought he would be able to go to school, sleep in a warm bed and not have to scrounge for food after coming to L.A. alone at age 15.

But after several months, Guarchaj said, he and his housemates would often return to the 1902 Gothic Revival mansion to find it closed. On many days, the refrigerator was nearly empty. The milk had gone bad. Cans of beans were long expired.

“We need food, please.”— Miguel Elias Guarchaj, former resident of Casa Libre

At one point, Guarchaj said, he put his Supra sneakers, black pants and favorite Target backpack for sale online. Someone offered $20 for his backpack. He hustled to a food stand and paid $5 for a rotisserie chicken and shared it with the other boys.

Out of desperation, he said, he called Schey for help. “We need food, please,” was the message he said he left with an assistant. Schey never responded, he said.

Schey told The Times he didn’t remember receiving the message. He did recall a meeting in November 2015, during which Guarchaj told him “he had experienced several occasions being unable to enter the house until 7 p.m. and the residents hadn’t been provided dinner.”

Schey said he told the manager at the time to always stock “sufficient food” and to keep the house open “when residents were not in school.”

Tomas Ixmata was 16 when he arrived at Casa Libre around 2011, having come to L.A. from Guatemala. His brother in L.A. told him he couldn’t afford to house him.

At Casa Libre, staff members treated him like family. But the home often closed for most of the day during school holidays, Ixmata said. There were times when the boys would return from school for the day and find the house locked until dark, he said.

“We were on the street,” Ixmata said, “because we didn’t have anywhere to go.”

There were times he was so hungry he asked his brother and friends for $5 or $10 so he could buy something to eat. But he did not feel right complaining.

“We had a roof and we had to put up with it because we weren’t paying anything,” he said.

Like Ixmata, each of the former residents interviewed by The Times expressed gratitude that Casa Libre provided housing for them when they desperately needed it. Many also said they felt like they had found a family among the home’s staff and residents.

But their gratitude sometimes made it difficult to speak up when problems arose.

Tomas Ixmata discusses a shortage of food at Casa Libre

“We don’t have anywhere to go,” he recalled telling Schey. “There is no food. Nothing. I understand you are helping us and we are grateful, but we need a place to stay. We need food.”

Erdman-Waterhouse said Schey told him he was looking at obtaining additional funding and donations. Schey also promised to speak with the group home’s manager, he said.

Schey said he did not remember the call. “I’m certain I would have never told a kid there’s no food because there’s no funding,” he said. “That would have been a lie on my part because there was always funding for food.”

He also noted that the home received thousands of pounds of donated food per year for several years from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

As for locking out residents, Schey said, that happened only occasionally, and primarily because of a staff member being ill or having an emergency.

Schey said he tried to ensure all residents have his cellphone number so they can call him if there is an issue.

The investigation prepared by the staff of Schey’s legal foundation said its review of shift reports, emails and interviews “do not indicate that residents were routinely ‘locked out’ of Casa Libre for any extended periods of time.”

Casa Libre staff also reported 16 times during a five-year period that “food was low,” according to the report.

But no records indicated “the house was out of food so residents were not being served meals,” the report said.

The report also noted that Casa Libre has only received three citations related to insufficient or expired food in the last 10 years. Those citations typically reflect only what inspectors saw during visits to the home, which often happened once or twice a year.

In 2015 and 2016, a time when some residents who spoke to The Times said they were being locked out and going hungry, inspectors did not visit the home, a spokesman for the state licensing agency said.

“Nevertheless, if any resident was ever forced to miss a meal, this was clearly a program failure,” the investigation says.

Schey also suggested that certain standards were impossible to maintain.

“I wish it was a perfect world. I wish I could make sure that every single meal at Casa Libre was warm, was nutritious, was full. I wish I could guarantee that every single day of the year when kids show up here the gate is open and the house is open,” he said during an interview at the house. “I would have to live here to accomplish that.”

The imposing mansion, with its weathered walls and red-domed roof, stands prominently on a corner just a short walk from the botanicas, pupuserias and street vendors that surround MacArthur Park.

When the house opened as a shelter, Schey described it as more than a place to sleep. It would be a home where young migrants would have access to life-changing services such as help attending school and obtaining legal status.

Hildner Coronado Ajtun, 18, one of four current residents made available by Schey, said he felt happy the day he arrived at Casa Libre. He had been detained for months at a shelter in San Diego, where he was not free to come and go.

Ajtun, like the three other current residents, said he is well-fed, felt cared for at the home, and has never been locked out. Sometimes a few residents act out and are “disrespectful” and “speak vulgarities” to staff, Ajtun said. He tries to calm down the more aggressive residents by talking with them. He believes they may be acting out because of difficult pasts.

“In my opinion, I do know that we all — including myself — need a counselor here,” Ajtun said.

From the beginning, regulators have repeatedly cited Casa Libre for violating state rules.

In May 2003, with eight boys in residence, the state Department of Social Services checked on the home and determined that it was operating without a license. Regulators threatened to impose fines.

The house eventually got a license but has struggled ever since to comply with the long list of state rules for keeping it.

Group homes are supposed to have certified administrators who are well-trained in the rules.

The investigation prepared by Schey’s legal foundation staff placed much of the blame for its citations on former program administrators who resigned or were terminated.

It also noted that state officials have never “concluded that the citations it issued were cause to temporarily suspend or seek to revoke Casa Libre’s license.”

Some of Casa Libre’s violations were relatively minor. For example, it was cited multiple times for not having a lid on a trash can.

But it has also been cited repeatedly for more serious issues — such as not properly supervising children. As far back as September 2005, inspectors cited the house because it was closed when school was not in session, forcing children to “find somewhere else to go during the day.”

Last year, inspectors once again found that boys were being locked out of the house.

Casa Libre has also been cited 14 times for issues related to not having a qualified, certified administrator or qualified assistant administrator.

It also has received 52 citations for issues related to the condition of the house — including problems such as leaks, rusty nails, broken windows, dirty bathrooms, soiled curtains, poorly lighted bedrooms and hallways, peeling paint and plaster and holes in walls.

In 2008, the house was cited for not having a “cooling system,” and state officials said staff had reported that it caused some boys to get headaches during a heat wave.

Last year, inspectors again found that the house did not have working central air or heating.

In late February, when Times reporters toured the home, the basement was partially flooded, there was torn furniture, a broken window and peeling paint and plaster. Each of the boys’ rooms had a space heater.

A few weeks after that visit, parts of the home were painted and some rain damage in the ceiling was fixed. The central heating was also repaired. But as of mid-May, there was still no central air conditioning.

In early May, a current staff member at Casa Libre told The Times the home was still severely understaffed, with only one adult supervising up to 10 residents per shift. A few of the residents refuse to follow the rules, he said.

“It’s a circus,” said the caretaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Despite problems uncovered by a Times investigation, Hildner Coronado Ajtun is grateful for the people who support him at Casa Libre

Residents are supposed to be in school, but he said it is widely known that only three attended classes.

“Sometimes they come home at 3 or 4 in the morning and they are under the influence,” and some are verbally abusive to staff, he said.

Schey said he hoped to secure funding to increase staffing and that residents who don’t attend school will be transitioned to alternative housing. Drug use can also lead to residents being removed.

“I have not been told it’s a circus,” he said.

Schey also said that he does not remember ever being told that cockroaches or bed bugs had been a persistent problem.

Over the years, Schey has helped bring prominent voices of Los Angeles’ immigrant rights and civil rights communities to Casa Libre’s board, including labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, who is now a state senator; UCLA professor Chon Noriega; and activist priest Father Richard Estrada.

Durazo and Noriega are no longer on the board. As of mid-May, the organization’s website lists Estrada as a current board member.

Former workers said that when they raised concerns to Casa Libre board members and other officials, they were ignored.

Federico Bustamante, who was the home’s administrator from late 2012 to 2017, emailed Durazo in October 2017, writing in the subject line: “URGENT SITUATION — Casa Libre.”

You may not know how grossly “mismanaged this organization has been under [Schey’s] direct instruction and watch,” he wrote.

Bustamante said he never heard back from Durazo. She told The Times she never saw the email.

He quit a couple of months later.

Schey said he had been planning to replace Bustamante, whom he described as an angry, disgruntled worker.

“When he comes out swinging is when he is told, ‘You’re not going to be in charge here, and you’re kind of on probation,’” Schey said. “Stuff he said is just utterly, completely false.”

In response, Bustamante said: “My work speaks for itself, and anyone that is curious can ask the community and the kids.”

Bustamante was eventually replaced as administrator by Javier Juarez, who had once lived at Casa Libre and was on its board of directors.

Juarez said he was later fired after complaining that Schey had asked him to do two jobs — shelter administrator and education coordinator — without fairly compensating him. Schey said the house could not afford the increase Juarez was requesting.

Before he was fired, Juarez wrote a letter to the board of directors, which described a project that was “falling apart” when he arrived — with holes in the walls, a refrigerator that he was told had been empty for weeks and a lack of staff “to supervise youth during the weekends.” It also raised his concerns about pay.

Juarez described Casa Libre as a project that was falling apart with holes in the walls, an empty refrigerator and a lack of staff.

The letter led to a discussion with Schey. But Juarez never got a response from fellow board members.

The state advises group home boards of directors that they are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the organization is run properly.

State law also requires the board to “review and discuss licensing reports,” which would have included the citations Casa Libre had received. It’s unclear whether that happened with Casa Libre’s board.

Schey did not provide minutes from board meetings, despite multiple requests from The Times. He said he did not remember whether the licensing reports were discussed, though he added that “certainly the concerns that were raised in inspection reports were discussed.”

Durazo said she served on the board from about 2010 to 2017. She was listed as a board member as part of the home’s 2003 license application, but did not recall being a member then.

During her time on the board, Durazo said she was not aware of lockouts or food shortages, didn’t recall seeing any of the inspection reports, and did not know which state agency conducted oversight.

She recalled visiting the home twice. She didn’t remember how often she attended board meetings. She emphasized that she was “not an active board member.”

Durazo said she spoke with Bustamante once about fundraising but not about the home’s deficiencies.

“This is not something I would have ignored,” she said. After an interview with The Times, Durazo said she sent a staff member to visit Casa Libre and asked state officials for all of its licensing reports.

Harry Salzberg, an immigration attorney who is currently on the board, said in a brief telephone interview that he was “not really in a position to comment too much on it, except to know that Peter Schey is an outstanding attorney, he’s been a dear friend of mine for many years, and his integrity is in my view unquestionable.”

Estrada, the activist priest who has served on Casa Libre’s board for several years, said he was in “shock” when told of the many citations and allegations of residents going hungry and unsupervised.

He said the citations were never discussed in board meetings.

Estrada said he’d heard about some funding problems, but not about residents going hungry.

The priest also expressed some skepticism about the claims made by former residents.

“How do you verify that they are not making it up?” he said.

Estrada also asked why, if there were problems, state officials did not do more.

“If they had all of these violations, why didn’t they take the license away?” Estrada said. “If the state was aware … why haven’t they taken the steps of doing something, calling the board making a big deal? They should have if it’s true.”

In Casa Libre’s case, state officials said they did what was appropriate.

The state imposed about $3,000 in penalties and also held two noncompliance conferences — one in 2004 and again in 2005. The first was later downgraded to an “informal” meeting.“If they had all of these violations, why didn’t they take their license away?”— Father Richard Estrada, who served on the board of Casa Libre

At the second one, officials discussed concerns with “financial issues, operational issues, physical plant issues, reporting requirements, care [and] supervision, administrator qualifications [and] availability, and staffing issues,” state licensing records show.

In 2009, state officials again had an “informal conference” to raise concerns about the house — including “inadequate housekeeping, inadequate staffing, and improper use of manual restraints.”

And in 2018, officials held an informal meeting with Schey and other staffers that raised “the need for a certified administrator” among other issues.

It’s not unusual for group homes to get citation after citation without more serious consequences, said Maria F. Ramiu, senior staff attorney for the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based legal advocacy group.

Decision-making is largely decentralized and often left in the hands of regional offices and individual inspectors, she said.

Asked whether the state should have done more to step up enforcement, given Casa Libre’s numerous repeat violations, Michael Weston, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services at the time of the interview, said the state’s oversight had been sufficient.

“A part of enforcement is issuing citations, providing technical assistance and working with facilities,” he said.

When told that former residents described going hungry and being locked out of the home, Weston asked: “Did they contact us and file a complaint?”

An immigrant himself, Schey arrived in the United States from South Africa in his youth. After graduating from law school in 1973, he made a name for himself by taking on high-profile cases on a variety of progressive issues.

“He’s certainly one of the leading immigrant rights lawyers of his generation,” said Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law expert and professor at UCLA.

Schey was a key voice last year in the fight against the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The two-decade-old Flores settlement is still seen today as vital to the protection of children in government shelters. President Trump has criticized the Flores case, and the administration has sought to withdraw from the settlement.

One of the key results of the Flores settlement has been the requirement that the government house migrant children in state-licensed facilities.

State oversight is “critical” to ensuring that shelters comply with “well-established child welfare standards for the safety and well-being of children,” Schey said last year on MSNBC.

Since its start 17 years ago, Casa Libre has attracted workers who said they believe deeply in that same mission — keeping immigrant children well cared for and safe.

Like all of the former workers who spoke to The Times, Juarez, the former Casa Libre resident and administrator, said he wants the house to keep its promise and help the youth thrive.

But to do this, Juarez said he believes it needs new leadership.

“If [Schey] does not have the time to run Casa Libre or to be 100% focused on it, then pass it on,” he said. “Because you’re dealing with youth. You’re dealing with youth that arrive to Los Angeles with traumas in their heads. They have had hard childhoods. So they need attention.”

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