A California Superior Court judge has saved an innovative residential high school for foster children from a state-ordered closure, and the school is ready to accept new students again.
California Superior Court (County of San Diego) Judge Robert Dahlquist issued a preliminary injunction forbidding officials from terminating the group-home license for San Pascal Academy in Escondido, Calif.
Dahlquist ruled that the government had incorrectly invoked the State Continuum of Care Reform Act in its early 2021 decision that the school would have to be closed.
“We’re just ecstatic,” attorney Charles LeMandry, who represented the Academy’s stakeholders in a lawsuit against the state and county, told The Epoch Times.
“Looks like it’s on the right track to get back in motion.”
Lemandri said juvenile court judges are again free to send children to San Pascal Academy, as they have done since the residential school opened in 2001.
“They are licensed to have 184 students. They are down from 43 because the county and state have not allowed them to receive any new students,” Lemondry said.
“Students graduate, or they leave for whatever reason, and they are not replaced. This is decimating enrollment. We are hoping that it will now reverse itself.”
Established to meet unique needs
San Pascal Academy was founded through the efforts of a Superior Court judge who sought a new solution for foster children who bounced around the system in traditional foster homes, group homes, or shelters.
The Academy’s success has been lauded for taking difficult foster cases and giving children the grounding to graduate high school and, for most, higher education.
James Milliken, a retired San Diego County Superior Court judge who helped found San Pascal Academy in 2001, said the school aims to “provide a stable, family-centered placement for teens and their siblings.” , who were being bounced around the system. Placed in foster homes or relative placements, or high-end group home care that was not appropriate, or county emergency shelters with long revolving door stays.
Milliken, who served as the supervising judge of the San Diego Family Court from 2001-2003 and the presiding judge of the Juvenile Division from 1996 to 2003, said San Pascal Academy meets a critical need.
“San Diego County did not have enough foster family placements to place all children in foster care in 2001, when the academy opened, and there are no longer enough foster families,” Milliken wrote in a declaration to the court in the lawsuit.
“That’s why the San Pascal Academy was created: to fill that void. A significant percentage have been abused or abused in the foster care system, whereas in the foster care system, that is not perfect.”
San Pascal Academy has garnered the support of the community during its two decades of service. The NFL’s San Diego Chargers (now the Los Angeles Chargers) donated a football field to the school. The San Diego Padres donated a baseball field.
“These are beautiful, state-of-the-art facilities,” said Lemondry, partner at Lemondry & Zona LLP near San Diego.
“Wealthy philanthropists from the Rancho Santa Fe community largely donated a beautiful pool near them. They have state-of-the-art computer rooms and a career center and lounge.”
County-appointed consultants to evaluate San Pascal Academy have released excellent reports on the academic program and school operations.
“There’s really no dispute that it’s been an astonishing success,” Lemondry said. “These studies don’t recommend that they implement any changes, because you don’t need to fix something that isn’t broken.
“The whole matter was about the interpretation of the law, whether it can remain open, not whether it is doing a good job.”
dispute over legal interpretation
The lawsuit focused on how to interpret a 2015 law called the Continuum of Care Reform Act, which modified California’s approach to fostering the situation.
Section 121 of the law created an exception for San Pascal Academy, which allows it to continue to license as long as it complies with provisions in the Reform Act.
The state and county believed that the law required the closure of San Pascal Academy because it did not fit the licensing category.
Judge Dahlquist ruled that “both the state and county have misinterpreted Section 121,” noting that the language authorizes San Pascal Academy to “continue operations while the state determines an appropriate licensing category or which will allow the Academy to operate.”
“How states and counties can possibly read that anything other than the grant of a long-term license is beyond me,” Lemondry said.
“But that’s what they tried to do. The judge didn’t buy it and went straight to our arguments.”
“They’re unfairly classified as a group home. It really isn’t,” said Lemondry. “The kids have separate cottages, they have 24-hour parenting. They have separate rooms. It’s not like the big dormitories you’d expect in a group-home-type setting.
“For all of those reasons, it makes sense to allow San Pascal Academy to operate because it has done such a great job and has such a great track record of kids successfully completing a high school program and being able to go on to college.”
‘He believed in me’
Natasha Strain, a 2005 former student of San Pascal Academy and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the court that the academy is a welcoming place.
“He completely prepared my room and gave me a gift bag with the items. He tried to make me feel very welcome,” she wrote in a statement to the court.
“San Pascal Academy wasn’t the first place that felt like home to me, but it was better than a lot of other places in giving you a sense of really belonging there, because you found your place.”
During his senior year, Strain said, school staff encouraged him not only to apply for college, but to seek scholarships as well. It sent a powerful message.
“I didn’t believe in myself, but he believed in me, which taught me to believe in myself,” she wrote. “And I got my degree in social work from Cal State San Marcos.”
Cecilia Bleu attended San Pascal Academy between 8th and 9th grade. She entered the foster care system in 1999 at the age of 9. She and her siblings experienced physical and verbal abuse from foster parents and their children.
“In one house, they turned off the refrigerator, fed foster children a different food from the natural family, and if someone brought clothes for us, they took the clothes and gave them to their kids,” wrote Bleu. .
“In another house, they told me I was fat and wouldn’t let me eat.”
Bleu arrives at San Pascal Academy on Friday, August 13, 2003. It proved to be a lucky day for him.
She found school a safe place where she didn’t have to protect her siblings from abuse.
“At San Pascal Academy, the setting is different from anything experienced in a foster family or group home,” she said.
Bleu joined athletics. Although there were rough patches with some struggles, he found that Academy staff improved “just resolutely, without being judgmental or belligerent.”
She graduated in 2006, but found that the lessons learned at the academy had a lasting impact.
In May 2021, she earned a college degree in psychology.
“Overall, I was a difficult kid,” Bleu said. “But San Pascal Academy kept me out of worse trouble. Without this program, my life wouldn’t have been the same.”
‘We show them that family is forever’
Tia Moore believed so much in San Pascal Academy that when she was hired as director, she moved her family to the campus, which was nestled among 200 acres of orange groves.
“San Pascal Academy was unique—it’s unlike anything else for foster youth,” Moore wrote to the court.
“When you visit campus, it doesn’t feel like a ‘convenience.’ We regularly get calls from people from different states or people working on their doctoral research, calling the San Pascal Academy in their area want to repeat.”
Over 15 years, Moore said she has seen hundreds of foster youth receive high school diplomas when they cried after a bad breakup or when parents didn’t come for a visit as promised.
She said that the Academy is “the family that looks and should be seen in the foster care system.”
San Pascal Academy has alumni accommodation, so graduates can return to travel or find a place to live during tough times.
“Through our alumni housing program we show them that family is forever and they will always have a place to come home.”