A busy 2019 legislative session in California saw the passage of several laws for reform and improvement in the state’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems, as well as addressing the state’s high rate of youth homelessness. Read on for a run down of the issues, the laws that went into effect at the start of 2020, and what they are changing

Child Welfare (Foster Care):

Facilitating California’s Continuum of Care Reform

Passed into law in 2015, California’s Continuum of Care Reform laid out the legislatures intent to improve outcomes for youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems by implementing targeted reforms including:

  • prioritizing the use of home-based family care and reducing the number of young people placed in congregate care (group homes),
  • shortening the length of time children spend in foster care and juvenile justice detention, and
  • creating faster paths to permanency whether it is family reunification or adoption.

In AB 819, the state moves CCR forward through certain improvements to processes and services to help those in foster care get the right placement, treatment, and supports in a timely manner. The bill addresses issues such as resource family approvals, provision of intensive services foster care, and emergency placements for probation youth.

Updating Rules for Foster Youth Education Planning

At the federal level, the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) and the Fostering Connections to Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 offer certain protections meant to improve educational progress and stability among foster youth. Included in these protections is that children/youth have the right to continue attending the same school, even if their foster care placement is not within the area generally served by that school. However, neither law sets any regulations regarding transportation to and from school for foster youth in more out-of-area placements.

With the passage of AB 1068, responsibility for home-to-school transportation planning is officially assigned to Child and Family Team, a collaborative decision making team made up of the child/youth, their social worker, and identified family members or natural and community-based supporters.  In addition, the bill requires that the Child and Family Team meetings be open to the child/youth’s education rights holder—a title often maintained by a biological parent regardless of foster care involvement.

Juvenile Justice Reform

Young people in foster care experience much higher rates of arrest, incarceration, and probation than their non-foster care peers. This is visible in the entry statistics for the young people we serve. In 2019, nearly 50% of First Place participants come into contact with the justice system before they joined us, and with our support, more than 95% avoid further justice involvement while in our program.  The juvenile justice related bills enacted this year focus primarily on preventing young people from becoming involved in the system and improving their ability to make successful transitions from incarceration to the classroom.

Educational Services and Records for Incarcerated Youth

Under previously existing California law, county offices of education and probation department have a must have a joint transition planning policy in place to coordinate services for young people, including collaborating with education agencies to ensure young people are receiving academic services.

To improve young people’s ability to maintain their academic momentum and trajectory, AB 1354 adds to these requirements that any young person enrolled in a juvenile court school for more than 20 consecutive schooldays must have an individualized transition plan, and that records and documents related to this plan is made available to the young person’s educational rights holder (e.g., parent) upon their release.

The new law also states that it is the responsibility of county offices of education and probation departments to work together in creating procedures that ensure the transfer of accurate and complete copies of  educational records happens in a timely and confidential manner.

Funding for Juvenile Justice Diversion Programs

Enacted under the 2018 state budget, the Youth Reinvestment Grant Program provided funding to municipal and tribal governments to help defray the costs associated of contracting with nonprofit organizations to implement evidence-based, trauma-informed diversion programs. Now, under the new guidelines enacted in AB 1454, non-profit organizations are eligible to apply directly for grant funding to support their diversion programs.

Becoming involved with the juvenile justice system can dramatically impact the direction of a young person’s life. For young people who have committed relatively minor infractions or who are dealing with extenuating and contributing circumstances—for example, mental health difficulties—diversion programs offer an alternative to incarceration. These programs offer young people the opportunity to make supportive connections, receive necessary services, and build the habits and skills that can help reduce risk-taking behaviors.

Youth Homelessness

California is in the midst of a homelessness crisis, and much as with incarceration, foster youth are far more likely to experience homelessness than their peers. Approximately 40% of all young people who age out of foster care report having experienced homelessness at least one by age 24, and more than 70% of the young people who come to First Place are homeless or living in unstable housing arrangements.

Even while still part of the foster care system in their teens, young people can become or face the risk of becoming homeless. This can be due to a number of factors including ongoing neglect or abuse after an attempted family reunification, not feeling safe in their foster or group home. For non foster youth who become homeless while minors, it is often the result of family rejection over the young person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Foster youth and other minors who are homeless and without family connections are especially vulnerable to exploitation, substance abuse, and violence. Safe shelter and connection to available resources is vital to helping young people who are or may become homeless avoid these and other poor outcomes.

Expanding Access to Shelters and Services

Previously, California’s short-term runaway and homeless youth shelters limited young people (minors 12-18) to stays of no more than 21 consecutive days. AB 1235 put into place new guidelines for shelters, allowing stays of up to 90 days and expanding eligibility for services to include young people at risk of becoming homeless. By allowing young people with precarious housing situations to access services, AB 1235 improves the states ability to prevent youth homelessness before it occurs.

Continue Reading: New California Laws Part 2: General K-12 Education and College Access for Foster Youth