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What If the Best Remedy for a Broken Family Is No Family at All?

The San Pasqual Academy argues we should let foster teenagers create their own tribe.


Between the ages of eight and 16, Nora lived in 32 foster-care settings. She lived in emergency shelters for children, in the homes of well-intentioned short-stay foster parents, and at home during her mother’s brief bouts of sobriety. One of her foster families would not allow Nora (not her real name) to bring her belongings inside; she had to change her clothes in the garage. She was in her last placement for four months when her foster family decided to move—and leave her behind.

Foster children have a median number of three family placements, but many teenagers end up living in 10 to 12 different homes. If you’re still in foster care by the time you’re 12, you have a single-digit chance of being adopted if you want to be. In fact, a teenage girl in foster care is more likely to get pregnant than to get adopted. Somewhere near 25 percent of foster care kids become homeless. So, even though Nora was non-violent, sober, and free of physical and emotional disorders, her prospects were grim. The surest way for Nora to have had a fixed address, attend the same school, and establish some routine would have been placement in a group home, a highly restrictive setting usually reserved for teenagers with behavioral problems—and one of the lowest rungs on the ladder of foster-care placements.

What was unusual about Nora was her ambition. “I wanted two things more than anything,” Nora says. “I wanted to make sure my mom took better care of my younger sister than she did of me, and I wanted to go to college.” And Nora had great grades. So her social worker recommended she enroll in San Pasqual Academy, an unorthodox—some would say controversial—group home and boarding school for foster kids near San Diego, California.

What happened after that wasn’t what society has come to expect from kids who’ve lived in group homes. Nora graduated from high school, then college, and is now in her final year of graduate school. Census data reveals that about three percent of foster children earn college degrees, a tenth of the national average, but Nora’s story isn’t uncommon for San Pasqual.

San Pasqual exists because families fail. And when teenagers are involved, families tend to fail most spectacularly.

TODAY, FOSTER-CARE POLICY tends to be leveraged on the assumption that a family structure best serves a child’s interests. Ideally, that would mean biological parents or relatives. But even a substitute family is considered preferable to (and more cost effective than) a group home. To be sure, research shows this is true for very young children.

San Pasqual, a non-profit that can serve about 180 kids, exists because families fail. And when teenagers are involved, families tend to fail most spectacularly. The academy believes teenagers should bond with a community of their peers and a group of adults rather than be folded into a series of potentially dysfunctional families. The concept can be reduced to a simple truth: There is no time. There are more than 60,000 foster children in California alone, and it can take years even to try to rehabilitate troubled biological parents or family members, or find stable adoptive parents.

For kids stuck in the churn of the national foster-care system through their teens, prospects for adulthood are bleak. Almost 60 percent of those who age out of the national foster-care system wind up unemployed, and more than 20 percent of young people who arrive at homeless shelters come directly from foster care. According to the Brookings Institution, 80 percent of males who have been in long-term foster care, and 57 percent of females, have been arrested at some point (compare that to 17 and four percent in the general population).

“The foster-care system is pernicious,” says retired family court judge Jim Milliken, one of the founders of San Pasqual Academy. “It’s damaging for the kids that stay too long. The vast majority of them end up with bonding disorders. They get psychological damage from never having a secure, permanent place.”

Milliken, at almost 70, is a pink-faced man with a white mop and glassy blue eyes who served for eight years as the presiding judge over San Diego County’s juvenile court. When he began his tenure in 1996, he was appalled that the average time between a child’s removal from home and landing a long-term placement was 34 months (22 more months than it’s supposed to take). Milliken instituted reforms, and family reunification rates tripled under his watch. But for all that he accomplished, he was acutely aware of the courts’ continuing failures.

“I looked around and we had all these kids who were turning 13 and 14 years old and have been in the system for years. They were being sent off to group homes because they didn’t want to go to another stranger’s house,” Milliken says. “They want to go to the same school and claim some independence.”

San Pasqual's public school boasts a graduation rate twice that of foster kids statewide. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAN PASQUAL ACADEMY)


NESTLED IN ONE OF San Diego’s lush coastal canyons, on a 238-acre parcel of land, San Pasqual Academy’s $14 million campus includes a small public high school, an organic farm, a fire station, a colony of subsidized housing for seniors (who serve as surrogate grandparents), a swimming pool, a technology center, and a manicured football field. Up to eight students live in each cottage with one or two adults, who cook meals, help with homework, and enforce bedtime. The adults are there to offer an approximation of parental support when needed, but the main focus of San Pasqual is to establish a structure whereby the kids can create their own community—and bond with it.

San Pasqual, modeled after a similar academy in Israel, is the only home of its kind in the United States. And Milliken says its graduation rate is near 90 percent, as compared to 45 percent for foster youth statewide.

“I only believed half the things I read about the school,” Nora tells me over the phone from her apartment in Northern California. She was accepted into one of the school’s first graduating classes. Her San Pasqual college counselors helped her apply for grants, scholarships, and loans for her undergraduate and graduate education. Any gaps in Nora’s university funding, San Pasqual filled. “I mean, that’s more than a lot of families can do, so I’m pretty grateful,” Nora says. She has a polite lilt to her voice and adds, “I also got here because of me.”

To be accepted at San Pasqual, for the most part, students can't have a bad history of violence or substance addiction (the state licenses schools to house various "classifications" of foster kids, but San Pasqual has some discretion and flexibility). They don’t have to be strong academically, but they do have to demonstrate that they want to be there, which means they have to request admission, even if a court recommends them. Students are required to take on extracurricular activities, undergo job training, get summer internships, and apply for college (the Friends of San Pasqual non-profit helps raise money for tuition).

Americans often have a deep-seated suspicion of institutions, especially ones that play roles traditionally reserved for the family.

RIGHT OUTSIDE HAIFA, ISRAEL, surrounded by the Mount Carmel forest, is the Yemin Orde Youth Village, a school for at-risk youth. Originally built in 1953 to shelter adult immigrants and orphans rendered homeless by the Holocaust, it now shelters mostly abandoned immigrant teens ages 12 to 19.

In 1998, Milliken took a research trip to see Israel’s extensive network of youth villages, modeled partly on the European boarding school and partly on the Israeli kibbutz. At Yemin Orde, Milliken met Chaim Peri, the philosophical father of the Israeli group-home model.

“You have a painfully short period of time to heal adolescents,” Peri says in an interview during a recent visit to the United States. “If you want to heal a family, with its own long-staying pathologies, then forget about healing the child.” Peri is in his 70s and has a thick silver mustache and a baldpate covered by a yarmulke. At Yemin Orde, he says, they tell “neglected, abused, and parentless children, half of them immigrants and half from abusive homes, ‘What your family cannot do for you, your community will.’”

Peri’s thinking is inspired in part, he says, by the pioneering writings of the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Bowlby’s work is, in a way, a surprising source for Peri. In his book Attachment and Loss, Bowlby argues that infants and young children need to have one secure primary caregiver, usually a biological mother, in their lives in order to form secure attachment to the outside world. This primary caregiver becomes a base from which the child can then explore the world. The thinking is, if children perceive this attachment figure to be nearby, accessible, and attentive, they will feel loved, secure, and confident. If they don’t, Bowlby posited, the child will be wracked with insecurity and emotional disorders that persist past infancy. Peri, though, understands that it’s not enough to simply place blind faith in the family unit. So he has adapted the idea of secure attachment for the realities of adolescent foster care.

“You can’t just leave a child in a pathological environment and expect them to be a part of a culture that is value laden and reveres life. The time slot is too short,” Peri says. For those who’ve had a destructive childhood, adolescence, Peri holds, is a time to recover—and find bonding and security elsewhere. “I sometimes refer to our village as a garden of late bloomers,” Peri writes in his book The Village Way, “because so many of our teenagers—like teenagers the world over—are wrapped in cocoons, dealing with traumatic childhood experiences and healing from them during the early years of adolescence. Only later are they capable of devoting themselves to building their futures. The trick is to be there for these teenagers when they are ready to bloom.” And not to leave them. No one is expelled from Yemin Orde: Everyone is told that they’ll always belong. Like a family.

The most direct inspiration for Peri’s model was the counseling work he did starting in the early ’60s, organizing schools for waves of immigrant children from countries like Ethiopia and Yemen. Given that Israel was a young nation with few people and few developed institutions, and with citizens steeped in the European boarding-school and Kibbutz models—and that many orphans were adrift in the world, with no expectation of reunifying with their families—the “village” model was a natural fit. By circumstance, the best option available, Peri says, was to create mutually collaborative and supportive communities among the children themselves, with adult supervision.

Peri’s approach was prescient. According to Cambridge researcher Michael Lamb’s review of hundreds of psychology studies, whether or not a child is related to a guardian has no impact on that child’s social and mental adjustment. More importantly, the social science and medical establishments now widely agree that the composition of a kid’s family is secondary to the family unit’s style of parenting. Peri’s model prioritizes that idea, and that approach let Milliken liberate San Pasqual from the conventional wisdom that continues to dominate foster-care policy: that family reunification always comes first.

Yemin Orde, in Israel, gives abandoned immigrant teenagers a stable place to create family. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEMIN ORDE)


STUDENTS AROUND SAN PASQUAL affectionately refer to Milliken as the Judge. Boys in dark baggy denim and loose white T-shirts high-five him as we enter the lunchroom. The Judge proudly talks about the record of relative success that San Pasqual has racked up during the decade it has existed. San Pasqual is no utopia and there are still plenty of shortcomings, but its statistics are much better than the national average for foster kids: None of the kids become homeless when they age out of the system since the academy provides them housing; there’s that 90 percent graduation rate from high school, with one-fourth entering college; and they have the best football team in their public-school division. That last point is not a minor one. The team has proven to be a key factor of the community. “The kids have a mascot, a silver-and-blue fire-breathing dragon—an identity, and a sense of pride,” Milliken says.

THE RESEARCH ON SAN Pasqual is promising enough that it has renewed debate among researchers as to whether certain group home models can outperform other types of foster care. But the program is still too young and small to have a large body of data behind it. Building more campuses is an uphill slog. While San Pasqual is in part supported with public money, a number of the school’s programs depend on private fundraising; and the academy is legally classified as a group home, the least desirable form of foster care in the eyes of academia, the public, and the legislature—a technicality that makes mustering funding difficult.

And despite its impressive track record with graduation rates and retention, San Pasqual is also struggling to keep enrollment up. At times there are as many as 50 unfilled slots. Again, legal and structural problems are partly to blame: The state discourages the use of group homes as they are more expensive than private foster homes, and California puts a financial cap on the length of time a child can stay in a group home—sometimes making it hard to keep a kid at San Pasqual for all his or her high-school years.

But some of the hindrances have to do with how much San Pasqual asks of its students, and how radical its basic idea really is. On a recent afternoon, Milliken is watching students give a tour to a prospective enrollee. “We want the kids to be honest about their experience here. Potential students don’t need one more adult making them empty promises,” he says as the tour approaches.

Today’s potential student is a 14-year-old African American girl, apparently unenthusiastic. Milliken introduces himself with a hearty smile and gives some well-wishes.

“She’s not going to come here,” Milliken tells me with quiet despondency. “She doesn’t believe what we’re telling her.”

Americans often have a deep-seated suspicion of institutions, especially ones that play roles traditionally reserved for the family. And San Pasqual is a particularly pointed challenge to that sense of the family’s sanctity. Not long ago, the academy built a cluster of spacious apartments for recent alumni who have nowhere to spend holidays and breaks during college or to live after graduation. If home, as the saying goes, is the place that will always take you back, San Pasqual is an approximation of just that.