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Karen Bass

Declaring that she’s in the race “with my whole heart,” longtime child welfare champion U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D) launched her campaign for mayor of Los Angeles on Monday by promising to take action on the city’s homelessness crisis.

“Our city is facing a public health, safety and economic crisis in homelessness that has evolved into a humanitarian emergency,” Bass said in a statement posted to social media.

The City of Los Angeles has more than 41,000 people experiencing homelessness, according to the most recent homeless count. Homelessness has become a defining issue in the race to succeed current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. As the instant frontrunner for the 2022 election, Bass joins a field that includes City Councilmembers Kevin de León and Joe Buscaino, City Attorney Mike Feuer and real estate broker Mel Wilson, among others.

With a long pedigree of child welfare accomplishments, the news that Bass was entering the mayoral race in the nation’s second largest city sparked plenty of excitement among advocates for foster youth and families.

“Her running and winning would put a direct spotlight on the foster care system,” said RightWay Foundation Executive Director Franco Vega. “There’s never been anyone at City Hall that has highlighted the needs of transition-age foster youth.”

During her time in Sacramento, Bass fought to provide tens of millions of dollars for relative caregivers in the state budget.

But there were also some reservations about the loss of a seasoned advocate for children and families at the federal level.

Charity Chandler-Cole, chief executive officer of Los Angeles County’s court-appointed special advocates program, said she had “mixed emotions” about the announcement.

“I was originally conflicted because having her in Congress gave me so much assurance that we had someone consistently and constantly advocating for these issues on the federal level,” Chandler-Cole said. “I may want her somewhere else personally, but I trust that she knows exactly what she’s doing, and that it’s going to be for the betterment of all of us.”

During her time in Washington, D.C., Bass has worked on criminal justice reform and improving ties with African countries, among other issues. In 2019, she took a leadership role as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and was considered a top candidate for vice president by now-President Joe Biden during his presidential campaign last year. But her work on child welfare has been the six-term representative’s calling card for more than a decade in the House of Representatives.

She co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, which brings together Democratic and Republican members of Congress to introduce bipartisan child welfare legislation. Bass launched the annual Foster Youth Shadow Day, where current and former foster youth spend time with a member of Congress and help craft legislation.

She has also had a hand in many important pieces of child welfare legislation over the past 11 years. In 2013, the Bass-authored Uninterrupted Scholars Act gave social workers access to the educational records of children and youth in the child welfare system. And another law she helped write, the Foster Youth Independence Act of 2015, provided millions of dollars to child welfare agencies to support former foster youth up until age 23 in nearly two dozen states.

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Charity Chandler-Cole, CEO of Los Angeles County’s court-appointed special advocates program. Photo courtesy of Chandler-Cole.

Bass was also a key ally in helping pass the Family First Prevention Services Act in 2018, an overhaul of federal funding that will provide more money for services to prevent the entry of children into foster care and limit federal funds for the use of group homes and institutions.

Before she was elected to California’s California’s 37th Congressional District in 2010, child welfare was a prominent part of her work in South Los Angeles and in Sacramento. A former physician’s assistant, Bass founded the nonprofit Community Coalition more than 30 years ago when she wanted to provide help to neighborhoods reeling from the impact of the crack cocaine epidemic.

During her time as executive director of the South Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Bass helped to organize relative caregivers, often grandparents who were often called upon to take care of their grandchildren with little support.

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“At that time, grandmothers were waking up in the middle of the night… [saying], ‘We’ve arrested your daughter and we’re bringing your grandkids over,’” Bass told The Imprint in a 2017 interview. “And now you have three grandkids and you’re 70 years old on a fixed income with medical issues.”

In 2004, Bass was elected to the California State Legislature, where she eventually became the Speaker of the Assembly, the first time that a Black woman had served in the prestigious post in any state. During her time in Sacramento, Bass fought to provide tens of millions of dollars for relative caregivers in the state budget.

In 2010, she also co-authored Assembly Bill 12, the landmark law that extended foster care eligibility from age 18 to 21.

Despite Bass’ long track record in developing child welfare policy, she will not have much authority to implement change in Los Angeles County’s child welfare system, the nation’s largest locally administered child protective services agency.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is overseen by the five-member Board of Supervisors, which represents a sprawling area that includes Los Angeles and 87 other cities. 

Vega, whose RightWay Foundation works to support current and former foster youth, said that if Bass wins the 2022 city election, she could still help young people as they transition out of government care.

The Los Angeles mayor manages the city’s workforce board, which provides job training and internships to more than 17,000 young adults a year. He suggested that Bass could create a workforce center just for current or former foster, who are far more likely than their peers to experience unemployment.

But the most significant way a Bass administration might help youth would be to create more housing earmarked for young adults who have left the foster care system, Vega said.

“Everyone talks about homelessness, but no one’s talking about foster homelessness,” he said. “This will be a blessing for our young people.”

Comments from Bass during a Sunday morning appearance on a MSNBC talk show seem to back those sentiments up.

“I've been focusing on two of the drivers of homelessness, and one is people who were formerly incarcerated, and the other are people who were in the child welfare system,” Bass said on The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart. “When young people turn 18, a lot of times they wind up on the street.”

Often praised for her ability to build consensus across the aisle, Bass could help broker child welfare partnerships and mediate discussions with the community, said some advocates.

Chandler-Cole said one example could come with L.A. County’s effort to set up a new array of prevention services under the Family First Prevention Services Act, which is set to take effect this Friday. Under one part of the new law, child welfare agencies would be able to receive federal funding to prevent families from losing their children to foster care. With her federal expertise, Bass could play a leading role in implementing the new law.

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“When it comes to preventing people from entering the system, we really need a champion,” Chandler-Cole said. “I think she’ll be able to really put fire under that. There are a lot of task forces and committees being formed to work towards that, which is very good and amazing, but she’ll be able to put truth to power when it comes to actually executing those goals.”

Jeremy Loudenback

The Imprint