Most of Sacramento’s missing persons vanish from one place—and it’s supposed to be a sanctuary for abused children.
Among the many tragedies of her death is that Kendra Nichole Czekaj had already shown such bravery in her abbreviated life.
At the age of 11, the Sacramento girl told a friend from school about the recurring nightmare that visited her when she was awake. It began with a shadow in the door, the one that made her forget how to breathe.
Kendra told authorities that she was just 8 the first time her father raped her. Prosecutors alleged that it happened at least 12 times over the course of the next three years. The last time the shadow visited her was on March 2, 2019.
Kids grow up thinking that life is made up of what they see and experience, that what happens to them must be normal. But Kendra knew what was being done to her wasn’t right. And she trusted that others would see it, too.
She ran away and confided in the friend. Her friend told an adult and the adult called police. On March 5, 2019, the Citrus Heights Police Department arrested Carewin Vinuya Czekaj for doing the unthinkable.
New adults entered Kendra’s life—case workers and forensic interviewers and family-reunification specialists. Around the beginning of this year, they decided she should go to the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento. On its website, the Receiving Home describes itself as a “sanctuary for children and young adults suffering abuse and neglect.”
But within law enforcement and state licensing circles, the home has a more troubled reputation, as a place where children can slip through its cracks. Kendra would soon become one of those kids.
Some time after 9 p.m. on Jan. 15, Kendra left the Receiving Home under unclear circumstances. The California Highway Patrol says she was following a 16-year-old girl who wasn’t from the home. Kendra hiked to the Capital City Freeway’s chewed, gray lip. The older girl had already darted across the northbound lanes onto the center median.
The story is that Kendra went to save her.
The woman in the Lexus couldn’t stop in time. There was an awful, screeching thud and a small body in motion. It came to rest in the center median. Cars swerved and stopped. An off-duty doctor tried to wake the girl laying on the concrete. An ambulance lurched to a stop. More adults arrived, wearing uniforms, all too late to fix what was already broken.
Kendra was pronounced dead at 10:08 p.m.
She was six months shy of turning 13. She was supposed to testify against her father, to confront the shadow once and for all.
Instead, the Receiving Home and Sacramento County must now answer for the death of a government witness.
Kendra’s death represents the worst-case scenario of what is a chronic occurrence at the Receiving Home, SN&R has learned. The children’s shelter—a cluster of buildings on a sprawling 6-acre campus just a block from one of Sacramento’s busiest prostitution strolls—is responsible for more than half of all missing persons reports in the city. Its porous boundaries mark it as a target for traffickers, pimps and predators.
This stark reality represents a promise broken, multiple times a day, to the region’s abused and abandoned children. For them, there is no sanctuary. And the shadows are everywhere they look.
The numbers don’t lie
The Receiving Home served 1,392 children during the fiscal year that ended in 2018, according to its most recent annual report.
That same year, it filed 3,892 missing persons reports with the Sacramento Police Department—nearly three reports for every abused, molested, neglected or abandoned child entrusted to its care.
To put that in perspective, police took a total of 6,234 missing persons reports in 2018, meaning that the Receiving Home originated a whopping 62% of them.
It has been such a consistently taxing issue that the Police Department set up a sort of bat phone for the Receiving Home. For example, on Jan. 1, 2018, the Receiving Home faxed 17 separate missing persons reports, 10 of which were resolved at the scene, according to a computer-aided dispatch report created by the Police Department. Patrol officers are dispatched when follow-up is needed, explained Officer Karl Chan, a department spokesman.
While the vast majority of the kids who leave the Receiving Home’s grounds eventually return, that doesn’t mean they come back unharmed.
A year before Kendra’s death, in January 2019, a youth who left the facility in spite of staff interventions later sustained injuries getting out of a moving car. That same month, a girl from the Receiving Home said she was sexually assaulted by the resident she left campus with.
Because of the home’s location on a gritty stretch of Auburn Boulevard, a block from Watt Avenue’s notorious prostitution stroll, kids who leave are at increased risk of sexual exploitation. The Sacramento County grand jury noted the high-crime setting in a 2018 report. Kendra’s one-time guardian Felicia Mohammed wonders by what logic the county decided it would be wise to place sexually-trafficked children there.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm in the area,” she said.
Of the 48 state licensing inspections that occurred in 2018 and 2019, six concerned children who were exposed to possible commercial sexual exploitation, or what used to be called child prostitution, after going AWOL.
Here’s one example:
In April 2019, three youths left the Receiving Home and got into a car parked across the street. The Community Care Licensing Division of the California Department of Social Services later investigated a complaint that a lack of adequate supervision resulted in the minors being commercially sexually exploited. In other words, the kids were sexually assaulted and money changed hands.
According to a state licensing evaluator’s report, three staff members who were later interviewed said they immediately contacted law enforcement when the children got into the car and monitored the situation from a facility vehicle parked nearby. But they told the evaluator they were afraid to approach the car because it had tinted windows. When the children emerged, the staffers escorted them back to the campus. One of the kids told staff she had been assaulted, but later recanted. The two other kids denied that anything happened to them.
As a result, the complaint was left unsubstantiated.
The same is true of many of the most troubling allegations against the Receiving Home, but it isn’t always because the children won’t talk.
In late 2018, the Community Care Licensing Division, which is the state’s oversight agency for foster and group homes, found evidence that Receiving Home employees had been discouraged from cooperating with its investigations. A September 2018 memo from an administrator that went to all Receiving Home employees led them to believe they shouldn’t speak to outside providers, including state licensing inspectors, auditors and Child Protective Services officials.
In fact, while the state was investigating the alleged intimidation, the person behind the memo kept looking into the conference room where interviews were taking place, “which caused staff to be concerned about ’being in trouble for talking to (Licensing),’” the evaluator wrote.
And yet the Receiving Home evaded any penalty.
State licensors repealed a Type A citation, their most serious, after Receiving Home CEO David Ballard retracted the memo and the two employees who issued it received counseling.
The Receiving Home hasn’t exactly become more transparent in the ensuing months.
Speaking through lawyers
SN&R attempted to interview Ballard, but the longtime CEO would only comment through the Receiving Home’s legal team.
The law firm of Sims, Lawrence & Arruti provided two statements on behalf of the nonprofit organization, which has nearly $15 million in assets and is funded largely by the county. The first, concerning Kendra’s death, explained that the Receiving Home has a state-approved plan that requires staff to verbally deter youth from going AWOL, shadow any kids who leave and file missing persons reports when they lose sight of their charges.
“Despite CRH following the law, and all protocols and procedures being followed, a tragedy occurred and everyone at CRH is devastated,” read the statement from attorney Cynthia Lawrence.
The second statement was much longer, running four pages and including prepared remarks from Ballard and other employees. It reiterated that Receiving Home personnel are legally prohibited from locking children in the facility to prevent them from running away and noted that California has ushered in significant reforms in trying to help mistreated children.
The first occurred in 2014, when the state upended how the system responds to kids who are sexually abused for profit. Rather than treat prostituted children like criminals, the state required that counties divert exploited kids from the juvenile justice system into the child welfare system.
More recently, in 2017, the state Legislature passed a law intended to drastically cut down the numbers of kids placed in group homes, where they’re more likely to drop out of school or get sucked into the criminal justice system.
The Receiving Home says these reforms mean the kids that come into its care are generally older, harder to place with relatives or foster families, and are “dealing with more intractable behavioral issues” than in years’ past.
That’s why AWOL numbers rose in 2018, the Receiving Home says, because it’s accepting “more youths with challenging and at-risk behaviors.”
But that doesn’t explain why the Receiving Home racked up 124 citations from the state between January 2013 and January 2015—before these changes took effect. According to an internal Sheriff’s Office report obtained through a public records request, 60 of the citations were for Type A violations deemed to be very serious.
Also, a civil lawsuit filed in 2014, a year after a residential counselor was convicted of molesting a 17-year-old girl at the facility, alleged “an alarming history of exposing children to additional abuse and neglect.”
And it isn’t just kids who leave the facility who face danger. In 2018 and 2019, the state investigated six instances of sexual assault between residents and four claims of staff abuse. In September 2018, the staff confirmed two separate incidents in which one youth burned another. Two months later, the state determined that residents were bagging marijuana at the facility. In both cases, staff was present and should have intervened, evaluators concluded.
As for the number of kids who go missing, the Receiving Home says it eliminated duplicate reports regarding minors who go AWOL multiple times, is conducting additional screening before admitting youth and is leaning harder on a system that rewards residents for staying on campus while letting older teens sign themselves out for approved activities.
“We feel a deep sense of responsibility for protecting each of our kids. However, the reality is that it’s difficult to manage their behaviors to a positive outcome every time,” Ballard, who will be stepping down later this year, said in the prepared statement. “When it comes to our teens, we’re often the last buffer between a teenager and homelessness, crime or jail. They have nowhere else to go and we know it’s up to us to get it right.”
Police statistics show some headway: The Receiving Home filed 2,097 missing persons reports in 2019, a 46% drop from the previous year. But that’s still nearly half of all missing persons reports. Through Feb. 4 of this year, the Receiving Home has faxed an additional 193 missing persons reports to police headquarters.
One of those belonged to Kendra.
Public support, private concern
In official circles, the Receiving Home has broad support. The California Legislature, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and Sacramento City Council all issued glowing resolutions recognizing the Receiving Home’s 75th anniversary last year.
In private, the messaging hasn’t always been so effusive.
In January 2018, the Sheriff’s Office circulated an internal report regarding a “noticeable increase” in children leaving the facility and engaging in risky behavior. The report summarized efforts to communicate that concern to Receiving Home staff and the “strain” being placed on patrol deputies responding to complaints from nearby businesses and returning youth to the facility.
In an email, sheriff’s Sgt. Tess Deterding said the captain responsible for that part of the county described it as “a multi-faceted issue that continues to present challenges for our patrol deputies.”
It’s also a bit of a jurisdictional quagmire.
The Receiving Home is technically in the city (which donated the land in 1964), but much of what happens outside of the home falls into the county’s lap. And internal emails show that the county has been concerned for more than two years, even as it defended the Receiving Home in public.
As recently as June 2019, the office of Supervisor Susan Peters, whose district includes affected businesses, was critical of the Receiving Home in internal county emails, writing that it had “ongoing problems with prostitution, gang activity, thefts, human trafficking, drugs, etc.”
According to the emails, Peters participated in at least two meetings about the Receiving Home with probation officials.
Peters’ chief of staff, however, said the supervisor was unavailable for interviews and hung up when pressed why.
The office of Board of Supervisors Chairman Phil Serna referred interview requests to a county spokeswoman and Peters.
Their silence is notable given that the county is the Receiving Home’s largest benefactor, providing most of the $10 million in annual public funding that the nonprofit receives.
Not only that: Of the roughly 1,400 minors who pass through the Receiving Home each year, all are either under the supervision of the county’s Department of Child, Family and Adult Services or the Sacramento Superior Court.
That makes the county accountable for what happens there, says the attorney representing Michelle Bryant, Kendra’s mother.
Jeffrey M. Schaaf is preparing a civil case against the Receiving Home and the county. The personal injury litigator said Kendra and Bryant were going through a court-sanctioned family reunification process, one marked by some difficult adjustments. It was during this period that Kendra was ordered to the Receiving Home. Schaaf said that Kendra spent a total of about three weeks there, but that her release was delayed a week because the county failed to process the court’s paperwork in a timely manner.
“She wasn’t supposed to be at the Receiving Home,” Schaaf told SN&R.
If true, then the county’s delay may have contributed to the death of a government witness.
Death of a witness
Kendra was doing her part.
After she made the sexual abuse allegations in March 2019, Citrus Heights police asked Kendra if she would speak to her dad on a phone line that detectives would monitor. Those calls—and what Czekaj admitted on them—helped validate what Kendra told police, said Officer Michael Wells, a department spokesman.
She was prepared to do the same in open court. But Kendra’s abuser is poised to benefit from his daughter’s death: Instead of 12 felony counts of child sex abuse, Czekaj is expected to plead to three felony counts of lewd and lascivious conduct involving a minor, prosecutors say.
Supervising Deputy District Attorney Chris Ore explained in an email the effect the victim’s death had on the case. “Because of the death of the victim, we were only able to hold Defendant accountable for the conduct that he admitted, which was less than what the victim described,” Ore wrote.
“This guy is going to get away with some of his crimes because his daughter was killed,” added Schaaf. “He arguably may even profit off his conduct.”
That’s because, as Kendra’s biological father, he may be legally entitled to part of any civil judgment against the Receiving Home and county.
It’s one of many cruel twists to a story about an outgoing kid who had already overcome so much when the system failed her.
Adults found her precocious and preternaturally wise. She seemed to breeze her way to good grades and spoke of avoiding toxic relationships like someone twice her age. And when the bad things came to light and the people around her tried to process what she’d been through, it was Kendra who texted tranquil images of rocks seen through the shallow veil of lake water with the message: “my happy place.”
“She was just emotionally very mature,” remembered Mohammed, who knew Kendra for six years and briefly took her in after her father was arrested. “She was just like the strongest 12-year-old.”
But Kendra was still very much a kid.
She brimmed with that immortal girl magic. It poured out of her during Sylvan Middle School spirit squad practice and on the sidelines of Junior Mavericks football games. She hosted and attended sleepovers. She crafted and painted pictures for her mom. She danced to make friends laugh. She dated a boy. She spoke about one day becoming a cardiologist and a fashion designer, as if anyone could do both.
Like many kids her age, she loved Billie Eilish. That one song, with its austere instrumentals and Eilish’s whispery falsetto—Kendra cooed along imagining what was ahead. The trial loomed in her future. But the terrible crimes of her father would not define her. Her story was bigger than that.
Mohammed said she and Kendra spoke about what her testimony could mean.
“I cannot even fathom some of the stuff that she’s been able to process and want to heal from,” Mohammed said. “I just feel like she was [going to be] able to help so many women.”
The future was a star. Kendra thrummed like a rocket ready to meet it. And when she reached it, she’d look back only to mark the incredible distance, and the path she blazed for other kids to follow.
That’s all gone now.
It was a crisp and brittle night outside the cottage where the short-timers stayed. Kendra was supposed to be going home any day now to start the rest of her life. The dawn was a mere seven hours away. She left on foot, not knowing she’d never see it.
Whatever happened, Mohammed said she hopes the bubbly, brainy and compassionate child she got to know “doesn’t just become the girl on the freeway.”
“Kendra was a very good friend,” Mohammed added. “She wanted nothing but the raw, honest truth.”
Her loved ones are still waiting to hear it.