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California’s Newest Child Welfare and Youth Justice Laws

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed several significant child welfare and youth justice bills into law last week, capping a year of investments in the state’s most vulnerable children and families.

Thanks to unexpected tax revenue surplus and federal coronavirus relief, the state budget includes millions of dollars in new safety net investments, including supports for struggling parents reeling from the pandemic; the nation’s first universal basic income program for young people aging out of foster care and a transitional kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds.

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Vonya Quarles, executive director of Starting Over, Inc. Photo courtesy of Testif-i.

A coalition of formerly incarcerated parents, county welfare leaders and advocates for foster youth heralded Newsom’s approval of Senate Bill 354, which will make it easier for people with certain kinds of criminal convictions unrelated to children’s well being and safety to serve as kin caregivers. State and federal laws encourage placing children who must be removed from home due to abuse or neglect with family. But stringent licensing rules for relative caregivers in the state have blocked family members with criminal convictions — some of which are decades-old — from stepping in to care for foster children.

Vonya Quarles, executive director of Starting Over, Inc., testified for the passage of SB 354, calling it crucial for grandparents like herself to protect children from institutions and from staying with unrelated foster parents when they have willing relatives able to receive them.

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State and federal laws encourage placing children who must be removed from home due to abuse or neglect with family.

“Criminal justice is probably the biggest factor in why our children languish in foster care,” Quarles said. “We hope what SB 354 does is to restore hope so we can restore families.”

California’s Democratic governor also approved about two dozen other bills that will impact the state’s foster care and youth justice systems. Some of the new laws include Assembly Bill 873, which would help Native American families in the child welfare system by increasing the share of costs covered by the state in proceedings involving tribes. Despite late opposition, Assembly Bill 260 will provide greater oversight of guardianship cases moving through the probate courts. Assembly Bill 124 will allow survivors of domestic violence and commercial sex exploitation to seek sentencing relief if they can demonstrate childhood trauma and victimization contributed to the commission of a crime.

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Newsom vetoed one controversial piece of child welfare legislation. Assembly Bill 226 would have created a new category of treatment for kids with intensive mental health needs — children’s crisis psychiatric residential treatment facilities. The governor agreed with child welfare advocates concerned that the use of such facilities would increase the number of young people held in locked institutions.

Jeremy Loudenback

The Imprint