By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For more than three decades, a small program operating off Highway 12 in the Valley of the Moon has made a big bet on some of Sonoma County’s most troubled girls.
It has used gardening projects, a Girl Scout troop, art workshops, job training and even yoga classes — at a cost of up to $1.6 million a year — to provide round-the-clock, court-ordered supervision to hundreds of teenage girls, many of them with multiple arrests for drug and gang activity, theft and other crimes.
The Sierra Youth Center, started by Sonoma County in 1979 in a corner of the juvenile justice campus off Pythian Road, also served boys for 25 years. Since 2006, it has resumed its all-girls mission.
But as soon as next month, the program could be closed.
Bob Ochs, the county’s chief probation officer, has recommended the center be closed, citing a drop in the number of girls it serves and the high cost for taxpayers.
For several years, Sierra’s capacity has been limited to 15 girls. But since last summer it has been serving only about eight girls, and that number is set to drop by at least two this month, Ochs said. Additional departures could bring it down to as few as two girls in the months ahead, he said.
Reduced arrests and a drop in the serious cases handled by the facility are major reasons for the decline.
“I could not keep Sierra open, to keep spending the amount of money we’re spending for so few girls,” Ochs said last week.
For the same cost, he said, the county could pay for about 10 probation officers supervising as many as 1,000 adult offenders.
“We’d love to keep doing it if the need were there and the dollars were there,” he said.
The recommendation would affect about nine correctional counselors, a correctional supervisor and a manager. Most would be shifted into open juvenile hall jobs. One to two layoffs could result from the moves, Ochs said.
The proposal goes to the Board of Supervisors March 20 for a decision.
It comes in the fourth year of county budget woes that have diminished spending on core government functions, including community policing and criminal investigations, parks, libraries, road upkeep and health and social welfare programs.
The closure threat to Sierra is not new, but it has jarred the many volunteers and community groups connected to the center. Critics have reacted with frustration and voiced suspicion about the county’s motives.
Since 2010, Ochs has twice proposed closing the center as a way to meet cuts for his department’s budget, which has been trimmed by about $5 million, or roughly 10 percent, since the onset of county’s fiscal crisis in 2009.
In each of those instances, supervisors responded to public pressure and moved to save the girls’ camp through last-minute restorations and funding shifts.
But last year they indicated their rescue was not likely to be repeated, and the board directed Ochs to study options for Sierra’s future, including closure.
Ochs said he reached his decision in mid-February and has since shared it with county supervisors, Sierra staff and an advisory committee for the camp.
Longtime Sierra supporters have voiced concerns about the recommendation, saying few good alternatives to Sierra exist for the highest-risk girls, who typically stay six to nine months at the center. Nearly all suffer from physical and emotional abuse, advocates said.
“I recognize it is a small program, and I recognize there are a lot of county needs,” said Caroline Keller, a retired school administrator and Oakmont resident who serves on Sierra’s advisory committee.
“But without the kind of opportunities that are provided through Sierra it’s going to be difficult for those girls. And not just for them, but for their children, because some of them already have children,” Keller said.
Ochs has recommended adding a non-residential daily reporting program for girls, similar to an existing one that offers counseling and training to boys, who make up 85 percent of the county’s juvenile offender population.
But that alternative approach, and others, including placement in local group homes and out-of-county facilities, doesn’t match the programming and outcomes of an in-county residential center like Sierra, advocates say.
Longer stays for high-risk girls in juvenile hall are another concern, they say.
“I’m not fighting for saying Sierra, in its existing structure, is the only possibility,” Keller said. “I just think we need to look at the outcomes.”
Other critics are hitting the county harder on two fronts.
First, they say closing Sierra will diminish probation services at the expense of girls, restoring past imbalances identified by county grand juries, which pushed for more programs at Sierra.
The county’s all-boys Probation Camp, a $2.2 million-a-year residential facility north of Forestville, is not slated for closure or significant cuts, critics add. The camp, which is 57 years old, has a capacity of 24 boys, and currently has about 18 to 19.
“The county should be ashamed as to how they have had such inequality in the boys and girls programs,” said Michael Canar, a retired administrative law judge and Oakmont resident involved in the fledgling campaign to save Sierra.
In response, Ochs said the Probation Camp has faced the budget ax before and could face it again. He added that the boys camp runs closer to capacity and serves a larger population with more serious offenses.
Critics also are questioning whether the county diverted girls away from Sierra over the past year to justify its closure.
“It’s an amazing coincidence that precisely as he (Ochs) is about to go in front of the board and cut Sierra, that the numbers would plummet so helpfully,” said North Bay Labor Council Executive Director Lisa Maldonado, who sits on Sierra’s advisory committee. “I’m suspicious about that.”
Others posed the same doubts.
“It makes sense. There’s no girls in the pipeline when you shut off the valve,” said Ed Clites, president of Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association, which represents the center’s correctional counselors.
Ochs said he did not speak with juvenile court officials or give orders to his staff about winding down placements at Sierra until mid-February. By that point, he said, the camp had been at eight girls for months and showed no sign of a population rebound.
He linked the drop to a decrease in juvenile arrests in the county, a trend mirrored statewide, California Department of Justice reports show.
A related factor, Ochs said, was a steep decline in the more serious, court-ordered supervision cases from which Sierra draws most of its girls.
Two years ago, 720 girls were arrested in the county and 117 were given court-ordered supervision, records show. By comparison, based on the past eight months, the county expects 389 girls to be arrested this fiscal year and 54 to be given court-ordered supervision.
“There’s no question Sierra is a wonderful program,” Ochs said. “But the system is showing we have such less need for it.”
He credited the county’s early-intervention programs, in part, with helping to keep more youths out of the justice system.
Other counties grappling with same issue have closed their juvenile probation camps to save money. Including Sierra, only about five girls’ camps remain in the state, Ochs said, most of them in large, urban counties.
“The numbers are not there to drive the programs right now,” said Steve Bordin, the Butte County probation chief and president of the Chief Probation Officers of California.
Supervisors Valerie Brown and Shirlee Zane said they would be looking for some of the savings attained in other cutbacks, such as outsourcing drug and alcohol abuse treatment and partnerships with non-profit social service and health providers.
“It has not been easy to find anything that does the same thing as Sierra,” said Brown, who represents the Valley of the Moon. “Is there any way we can continue to take care of these girls at less cost? I think we’re still looking for that.”
Brown also came to Ochs’ defense, saying she saw no evidence he or his department had orchestrated the population drop at Sierra.
Zane, the board chairwoman, said a top priority for her will be to maintain parity in the services offered to girls.
“Sierra is a very popular program,” she said. “It’s hard to think about discontinuing it.”
If that happens, she added, “my concern is the girls have the same kind of access to programming and workforce training that the boys have. How that takes shape remains to be seen.”