Beck is among community activists who perceive some supervisors as waffling. As members of the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority, Pam Slater and Dianne Jacob voted against a juvenile detention center, but as supervisors they voted for a foster-care facility. "I know there's a difference between foster care and a detention center," Beck said, "but there could be problems down the road." Although the new project appears to be an afterthought, county officials and supervisors say they had been thinking about providing an alternative for teenagers who don't bond well with foster families.
Yvonne Campbell, deputy director of Health and Human Services Agency, estimates as many as 500 such teenagers bounce from foster family, to Polinsky, to group home, and back again. The projected $8 million to $9.5 million annual operating budget of San Pasqual Academy would represent about 10 percent of what the county spends to shelter children. It translates to $2949 a month per child, adjusted for inflation. That exceeds "basic care" rates of $506 and $553 that foster families receive for teenagers. However, the cost of Polinsky and group homes supplied with special services that transitional children may not need is more than $5000 a month.
"We won't be spending any more money on these kids than we are now," Campbell predicted. "The ultimate cost to society is these kids could leave the system without a high school diploma and homeless. San Pasqual is a more reasonable, higher-quality program than what we're doing now." The project does not mean that the county is giving up on foster families, she said. "For some kids, one shoe does not fit all." Even though Cox wrote in memos three years ago, "Dependent children in San Diego County need a parent, not a process," he said he has since learned some children need other options.
Nancy Paige, a resident of Escondido, acknowledged that far fewer people oppose the foster-care facility than the larger, more intrusive juvenile detention center. "I know the media and the county like to portray us as a bunch of NIMBYs," she said, referring to the "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome. "But some of us who have been looking at San Pasqual Academy and researching foster care really question whether this is a good idea for children."
In public meetings, Paige has rankled county officials by suggesting that institutions increase the potential for sexual abuse. "The older and bigger kids will prey upon the younger kids. Foster parents tell me that it's rare to receive a child from Polinsky who hasn't been sexually abused," Paige said. "The supporters of San Pasqual Academy get very angry if you call it an orphanage or institution. They get very angry about any mention of sexual abuse. Everyone ignores that issue."
Campbell disputes such statements. Reported incidents of sexual abuse involve 6 percent, or about 420, of the county's foster-care children. "We do have kids who have been molested, and we have effective ways of dealing with that," Campbell said. "It's not a rampant problem."
Controversy arises from almost every aspect of the project. Although the San Pasqual Valley is scenic and peaceful, some children may feel isolated there and segregated from mainstream society. Despite numerous activities planned for the academy, some children may get bored.
"It takes a special kind of person to want to live out here," said Mary Keiser, co-owner of the San Pasqual Store and author of The Spirit of San Pasqual. "You're at least nine miles from the nearest movie, fast-food restaurant, library, or anything else. My teenage son was furious with me for living out here because he was so far from all his friends."
Keiser wonders how a paid staff can give troubled teenagers the personal guidance they need. The county plans to hire a nonprofit organization to operate San Pasqual Academy and is scheduled to seek bids in June. The county has accounted for $19.5 million of the $24.5 million needed to buy and remodel San Pasqual Academy, but some components of the $19.5 million could change. Last week, the county agreed to sell Deer Park near Escondido for $4 million. Some state lawmakers, such as Assemblywoman Dione Aroner, D-Alameda, are questioning the governor's decision to budget $1.5 million for the project. And at least $4.9 million must be raised from additional private donors.
"Donors like to give money to new facilities. They like to see their name on a plaque or on a room," said Warren, now a law student at Yale. "But day-to-day life isn't going to be wonderful. I think the board [of supervisors] has fantasies that it's going to be like Cider House Rules," Warren said, referring to a recent film about a New England orphanage with compassionate workers. "There is no Dr. Larch."
Arredondo, an undergraduate at San Diego State University, agrees that institutions are not ideal. However, she feels she might have benefited from a place like San Pasqual Academy. "I didn't feel comfortable fitting in an already established family," she recalled of foster homes. "I didn't like group homes either, but what I liked about them was there were other kids I could relate to." After living in so many places, including Polinsky, Arredondo said, "I would have liked one place to call 'home.' "