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Huckelberry: Group homes too often call deputies for non-law-enforcement issues
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Huckelberry: Group homes too often call deputies for non-law-enforcement issues

Workers at a Vision Quest group home along East River Road called for law enforcement help only twice in 2018.

From that same home, however, there were 149 calls for assistance by Nov. 21 of this year, including one in September for a teen with significant disabilities who was video-recorded being tackled and pinned to the ground by a Pima County sheriff’s deputy.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry asked the Sheriff’s Department to run the number of calls to group homes after the video of the incident was released in November and that deputy, Manuel Van Santen, was placed on administrative leave. Van Santen is now being criminally investigated.

“Obviously, there was that one incident and that was concerning, and that got me thinking about how often we are being called when we shouldn’t be,” Huckelberry said.

“We get called to these homes more than we should, often for disciplinary issues and not for law enforcement issues,” he said, explaining that’s why he asked for calls going back five years.

Huckelberry said he wanted to see how Vision Quest calls compared to other group home locations. Gap Ministries had the next highest call volume at one of its homes, 92 as of Nov. 21.

The report “is a confirmation of our deputies’ experiences with Vision Quest facilities,” said Stephen Portell, attorney for Van Santen. “It also confirms the public statements we made at the outset. Our law enforcement officers should not be used to supplement the staffing at these privately-owned facilities.”

What’s not clear from the data, released Friday by Huckelberry in a memorandum to the county supervisors, are the details behind the numbers: what are the ages of the youths in the homes, what are their behavioral challenges, and what kinds of protocols are in place for the group home workers.

Kara Gouveia, director of operations for Vision Quest Arizona, said there were only two calls last year because the property housed a different program, one for unaccompanied refugee youths in long-term foster care.

This year, the same home is populated by teen boys with histories of abuse and neglect who are ages 11 to 17 and in foster care. There are 20 boys between two homes on the property, she said, and the staff calls for help for assaults, possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, or if a teen runs away and is believed to be in danger.

Vision Quest accepts teens from the Department of Child Safety who might be in care for the first time, or who have disrupted other group homes or foster homes due to behavioral issues, she said.

After reviewing the memorandum, Gouveia said she’s curious about the ages of the kids in the other homes that have fewer calls. At some Vision Quest homes, she said, the kids are much younger and there are fewer calls to law enforcement.

Vision Quest workers will be meeting with law enforcement representatives in January, she said, to talk about ways to make improvements.

“Ultimately, it’s about keeping our kids safe, and it takes all of us working together to make that happen,” she said.

The boy the deputy pinned down, then 15 and in foster care, does not have arms or legs and was being arrested for disorderly conduct, although the charges have since been dropped.

That Sept. 26 incident became public in mid-November when the county’s public defender released a video that went viral. The eight-minute video shows a portion of an altercation between Van Santen and two teen residents.

Huckelberry said he would like to know what kind of oversight is provided by the state, what protocols are in place at the homes, and whether calls for service are being monitored by the state agencies that license the homes.

The group homes are licensed either by the state’s Department of Economic Security or its Department of Child Safety.

Chief Deputy Bryon Gwaltney provided the call rundown to Huckelberry and said the Sheriff’s Department found it “considerably difficult” to get the data it wanted on the group homes. That’s because the addresses of many of the homes are kept secret to protect foster children and teens.

On average, there were 30 law enforcement responses per year per location, the data show. The Sheriff’s Department was able to identify 17 group homes for youths within its jurisdiction, but also noted that this is likely not a complete list.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

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