A week ago, a public-relations firm emailed me an invitation to an "Exclusive Tour" of the Polinsky Children's Center, San Diego County's temporary emergency shelter for kids. When the county needs to remove a kid from the child's family, Polinsky is likely where the kid will end up in the short term. Similarly, kids whose parents can no longer take care of them also often find themselves at Polinsky. Approximately, 3,000 kids pass through the facility each year.
While it's not a detention facility, Polinsky is overseen by the Juvenile Justice Commission. Many of the children have suffered trauma or abuse or struggle with anger or substance-abuse issues, and so a lot of the same concerns arise that one would find in a juvenile hall. The tour was sponsored by Promises2Kids, the nonprofit that founded the center and continues to provide a portion of its financial support.
As a juvenile-justice-journalism fellow with the John Jay College at CUNY, I jumped at the opportunity for the tour, which was set for this morning. I RSVP'd, received two confirmations, and began the tedious trek of crossing Kearny Mesa via SDMTS buses.
An hour and change later, I found myself across the street. Then my phone rang. The firm, Bay Bird Inc., was calling to tell me the tour was cancelled, no detailed explanation provided. So, I occupied myself during the long haul back to North Park (the 45-minutes worth of bus-stop layovers) by berating Bay Bird via Twitter.
Promises2Kids CEO Tonya L. Torosian has since apologized for the cancellation, taking responsibility for not checking with Polinsky before offering tours to the media (I wasn't the only disappointed member of the press). She writes:
I would like to profusely apologize for canceling the Polinsky Center tour this afternoon. I understand this was a significant inconvenience for you. Our goal is for the public to understand how great Promises2Kids and the Polinsky Center is and the positive impact Promises2Kids has on the children it serves. The last thing we want to do is to waste anyone’s time.
Unfortunately, there was some miscommunication on the clearances for the tour. This was an internal issue and was not as a result of any actions of our PR company, Bay Bird Inc. or its staff member, Emily Goldmanis. Our intention of setting up this tour, the first time include media, was to showcase the wonderful amenities the Polinsky Center offers and how it serves the needs of abused and neglected foster children in San Diego. We hope you understand that our first priority must be the anonymity and safety of these children.
I understand, but, at the same time, I think Polinsky needs to open itself up to further public scrutiny. After county watchdogs inspected the facility in November 2011, the Juvenile Justice Commission issued a report that highlighted several matters worth looking at more closely in coming months:
Empty beds. Even though Polinsky has a 204-bed capacity, it records only an average daily population of 56 youth. The commission writes that this "raises the question about alternative use of these beds for a lower level of care for dependent youth."
Severe violence. During the last annual cycle, Polinsky recorded 91 youth-on-youth "serious assaults" and 119 youth assaults on staff. Both numbers are high, even by juvenile-detention standards. The commission recommended that Polinsky conduct a study "that may reveal any precursor events which could be helpful in reducing the number of serious assaults on youth."
High AWOL levels. Polinsky is not a locked facility, and minors can leave of their own will. As a result, last year there were more than 700 recorded incidents of juveniles going AWOL. Roughly 80 percent of those cases were repeat walk-offs. Commissioners also recommended a study.
Outdated computers. The commission also found that Polinsky's computer servers aren't up to snuff, citing complaints from educational staff that there are major software compatibility problems.