LOS ANGELES — Bobby Cagle, a former foster child and caseworker, is set to take over as head of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting Dec. 1 as part of ongoing efforts to curb long-running issues within the nation’s largest child welfare system.
"What having been director [of the Division of Family and Children Services] in Georgia will do is give me a leg up on the fact that that is a very large system," Cagle said in an interview in his Atlanta office. "LA County is composed of about 10.2 million residents, almost the same size as Georgia, in a very compact area."
His first priorities are "assessment of the system and the relationships with the key stakeholders in the community that are really vital to us being able to do the work," he said.
The Board of Supervisors is already working on the size of caseloads and promoting kinship care, Cagle said. "The nice thing in LA is that the Board of Supervisors already arrived at the conclusion that kinship care is a vital component and that they need to move in that direction," he said. "My encouragement will just be joining into the chorus."
As for caseloads, "One of the things … that every system deals with is the size of caseloads," Cagle said. "The trauma you experience in everyday work, even at a normal size caseload, is multiplied when you look at caseloads that are too large."
Another major concern is "the number of visitations that have to occur as well as the difficulties they have with traffic and also the distance that children have to be transported to do the visitations," he said.
“Cagle has worked in child welfare, substance abuse, early education, and social services for nearly 30 years, which has prepared him to handle critical incidents, community engagement, the courts, and thrive within the unique challenges and opportunities of working in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis in a statement made at Cagle’s appointment in September.
She voted in favor of appointing him in a 3-2 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Cagle will succeed former director Philip Browning, who retired after serving as director for five years.
The appointment comes four years after the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who remained in his home despite several investigations into reports of abuse by his mother.
Since then, DCFS has continued to face challenges of mismanagement, high caseloads and a shortage of foster homes.
According to Wende Nichols-Julien, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Los Angeles, the most pressing issue facing Cagle is the crisis of too few foster families and family environments for children.
DCFS serves more than 30,000 children each month, with more than half in out-of-home placement. This number is steadily rising each year while out-of-home resources are declining. According to the DCFS 2015-16 Biennial Report, the number of foster care resources, including family and group homes, has dropped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2015.
“We need to meet the shortage of foster care placements head-on by recruiting but also partnering with and supporting families in an ongoing way,” said Amy Heibel, communications director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.
As director of DCFS, Cagle will oversee nearly 4,800 social workers, 2,000 of whom were hired under Browning between 2015 and 2016 as part of the department’s effort to lower caseloads and reform the system following Fernandez’ death.
Cagle faced a similar situation on his appointment to his previous position as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in 2014 after two cases of children dying the previous year.
"The work is just very disturbing sometimes," Cagle said. "You see things done to children that you cannot even imagine …When I was a caseworker and my caseload got too large, I would lose sleep. … We have to recognize that those factors are all present anywhere that you’re doing social work in the child welfare system. … We have to do things to compensate for that the best we can."
Throughout the last three years, he has been applauded for his work at DFCS. While director, he was credited with reducing the state’s backlog of child protection investigations by ordering mandatory overtime for DFCS investigators, increasing staff and pay for frontline workers, decreasing caseloads and increasing reimbursements for foster parents.
During his leadership, the state also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in foster care, going from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,200 in 2016.
Tom C. Rawlings, director of the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, thinks this increase is due to Cagle’s “stable and transparent” leadership, which led to a more efficient and responsive system.
“It’s not been what we’d hoped to see, but in some ways it’s been an indication of his success rather than his failure,” Rawlings said. “While we never like to see any dramatic increase because it means we’re taking too many children into care, in this case I think it actually means we have been better at recognizing cases.”
In April 2017, another high-profile child death hit DFCS when 10-year-old Kentae Williams died after reports of abuse by his adopted father. The case led to the firing of three DFCS workers, one of whom had only two years of experience on the job, a result of high caseworker turnover within DFCS, deputy division director Virginia Pryor said.
Declining to comment further on Cagle’s appointment, Solis said in her statement that her decision to approve him came from conversations with foster youth, who “told us that they wanted someone who is from foster care, is culturally competent, believes in safely keeping families together whenever possible, can build relationships in the community, and had skills and experience working across sectors.”
Solis also noted in her statement that child welfare advocates said they “wanted someone who had ‘on the ground’ experience in child welfare, a track record of public-private partnership, recognized the role of counsel and the courts, and held a genuine belief in strengthening at-risk families.”
Cagle is noted for his work with early childhood education as former commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He has also expressed understanding of issues affecting immigrant children, LGBTQ youth and homelessness within the child welfare system.
“[Cagle] was the only candidate who emphasized the disproportionate harms facing LGBT youth in the system,” Solis said in her statement.
Still, the landscape Cagle faces in Los Angeles County is shaky, and undergoing recurring scrutiny.
A report by the California State Los Angeles School of Criminalistics and Criminal Justice and the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work analyzed the connection between children touched by DCFS and the proportion of youth with probation involvement.
The study found that four out of five probation-involved youth in Los Angeles had received at least one referral to child protective services for suspected maltreatment, many with their first referral during early childhood.
Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the country, with more than half the juvenile justice population with open mental health cases in 2015. The relationship between early childhood mental health and youth incarceration is one researchers are now investigating as reason for better child welfare practices.
“We must be mindful of the maltreatment and family instability these youth have experienced,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of Children’s Data Network and co-author of the report. “LA County is deeply engaged in prevention planning — the momentum is really tremendous. Continued leadership from DCFS under Director Cagle will be critical.”
Heibel agreed the child welfare system has an important role to play in preventative care and as a continuum of care for children and young people.
“We know that children thrive when they can maintain healthy connections and grow up in stable homes that can provide for all of their needs and help them recover from trauma,” she said. “Under Cagle’s leadership, we hope that we will continue to make progress toward supporting caregivers who step up to provide stable, loving homes for children who cannot remain with their biological parents.”
Roger Newton contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt an ambitious plan to divert thousands of the county’s youth away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems, connecting them instead to a comprehensive array of supportive services.
Speakers stepped to the microphones to declare their ardent support for the 78-page report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” which provided the framework for the sweeping strategy proposed.
“This is an historic day in the history of justice reform,” Dr. Robert Ross told the board. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, one of the largest foundations in the U.S.
“We know that 80 percent of the youth now being arrested in the county could be diverted to community-based services if the plan is realized,” he said. The county could “lead the nation.”
The report said that 13,665 arrests and citations were issued to the county’s young in 2015, according to the Department of Justice Statistics. And approximately 11,000 of those 2015 arrests — “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies” — would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation under the California Welfare and Institutions Code, had the proposed program been up and running.
Ross also told the board that the Endowment had been supporting restorative justice and diversion programs in California communities such as Long Beach, San Diego and Oakland. And they had promising preliminary data, he said, particularly from Oakland.
In the course of these programs, “young people come face-to-face with the people they have harmed,” and then make a plan for “making it right with the folks they’ve harmed,” he said, plus get health services that address many of the their needs. The programs are “proven to work better than incarceration and cost considerably less,” he said.
Another enthusiastic speaker was Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of the Juvenile Court, now the director of the county’s Office of Child Protection.
As a judge, he’d long been supportive of youth diversion, Nash said. And now he was “very concerned” by the numbers of youth crossing over from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. “But this program,” he said, will help ensure that foster youth “have equal access” to the advantages and services of diversion.
Several of the speakers described the 18-month process of designing the proposed new strategy as an unusually inclusive one, involving law enforcement leaders, local judges, county officials, health experts, community advocates and young people who had themselves been incarcerated.
The point was emphasized by Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) who, with her young colleagues, had come before the board many times, often to protest a vote, such as previous motions having to do with plans to expand the county’s jail system.
But on Tuesday, McGill talked of the honor she and other YJC members felt to be “a part of the youth diversion work group,” and how they “fully support” the plan moving forward.
She also highlighted some additional areas of focus her group thought “should be robustly included in the implementation.” They believe it is essential to protect youth from the “databases that track arrests.” This was mentioned in the report, she said, but it would require oversight.
Another of McGill’s concerns had to do with California’s Senate Bill 395, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. The new law guarantees that every young person of age 15 or under will speak to a lawyer before being interrogated by law enforcement. She stressed the necessity of including LA’s Public Defender’s Office and the Alternate Public Defender’s Office as “key partners moving forward,” so that “even young people who are being diverted have an opportunity to speak to counsel.”
Jessica Ellis, the director of Centinela Youth Services, was also on the subcommittee that created the diversion program-to-be. She told the board how “critical” it was to have “system-involved youth” continue to be part of the “implementation phases” of the project. Centinela Youth Service has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a successful restorative justice diversion program, which has frequently been cited as evidence that the newly presented countywide strategy is on the right track.
Peter Espinoza, the director of the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, had some suggestions along with his praise: the wish that “our menu of services is robust and diverse” and would include “a very serious focus on education and job readiness.” Most of the work he previously did as Superior Court judge, he added, “was aimed at the intersection of educational failure and justice system involvement.” The new diversion
When it was time for the five board members to vote, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board’s chairman, asked the board’s executive officer to record a unanimous vote.
“Giving youth access to supportive services as an alternative to arrest and incarceration is both morally imperative and fiscally responsible,” he said later, after the vote was finished.
Motion co-author Janice Hahn agreed: “The best juvenile system is one that keeps kids out of it in the first place.”
This story was written for WitnessLA.
The California Endowment funds coverage in California for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.
That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.
The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.
Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.
It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.
Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.
So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.
Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.
During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.
Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.
This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.
These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.
Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.
In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.
The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.
Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”
Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.
It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.
There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.
At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.
Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.
Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.
California is attempting to switch to a victim-centered approach for its sexually trafficked youngsters. But despite the passage of two important and well-intentioned new laws in the last two years, both of which affect youth who have been sexually exploited, change has not come easily or quickly.
The initial goals for those who work with trafficked youngsters are in many ways heartbreakingly basic, said Diane Iglesias, senior deputy director of the state Department of Children and Family Services. After identifying the affected young people and getting them into a support network, she said, workers hope to persuade their traumatized charges not to run away from their safe housing and back to their pimps who, while abusive, are at least familiar. Only once the cycle of running away is broken, she said, can the trafficked young people embrace treatment.
“The challenging thing to understand is where on a continuum, from group home, to remote location, to locked up, does this child need to be,” she said.
Yet, even more basic than those concerns is the fact that, until very recently, trafficked kids were still being arrested.
The first step toward decriminalization of sex trafficked children was SB 855, signed in June 2014, which required the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) to be officially recognized as child abuse. It also allocated $14 million in funding for CSEC training for county and foster care workers and implementation of support programs. However, despite the passage of this earlier law, youth sex trafficking victims were still viewed by many police primarily as lawbreakers.
Next came Senate Bill 1322, which bans law enforcement from arresting minors involved in the sex trade, except when their safety may be at risk. This bill was an enormous and essential step in treating sex trafficked kids as the victims they are and directing them toward social services, rather than cells, child advocates say.
Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2016, SB 1322 became active on Jan. 1, 2017, formalizing a statewide commitment to recognize these young people as crime victims with unique vulnerabilities — not as criminals.
But passing a law is one thing, changing a culture’s perception is another. On Dec. 31, 2016, the day before the law was to kick into gear, Republican state Assemblyman Travis Allen published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner stating falsely that California had just “legalized child prostitution.”
Cultural change is a major part of implementation, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, and chair of the California CSEC Action Team Committee.
The 2014 bill, SB 855, marked the beginning of getting people to look at the entire problem differently, Heimov said. It also helped by allocating $14 million in funding to provide state-mandated local CSEC training for foster care workers plus implementation of support programs for the victimized youth.
But while SB 855 was a step in the right direction, it still did not clearly identify CSEC kids as victims of abuse, Heimov said. “Even within the child welfare community these victims weren’t victims — they were criminals — young people who were making conscious choices to sell themselves for sex.”
The glacial pace of cultural change
Now, even with the newer law, SB 1322, in place, for certain segments of the culture, such as law enforcement, the shift in perspective has been complicated.
“Los Angeles is doing a better job of getting law enforcement to the table, but statewide it has been very difficult,” Heimov explained. “The challenge is, we have some [officers] saying, ‘Well, now that there’s no crime, there’s nothing we can do’ and that is a part of the attitude and culture change.”
Police have two main functions in serving their communities, she said. One is to prevent, stop or react to crime, the other is the peace officer or safety role.
So, “when they see a member of the community in distress, they’re supposed to do something about it,” Heimov said. “If a cop sees a 4-year-old alone on the street corner they don’t just walk away because the child isn’t committing a crime. They’re supposed to investigate why the child is alone and bring them to safety.”
Similarly, if a police officer sees a person on the street in the early hours of the morning and she appears to be a trafficked minor, the police officer’s proper role is to bring her to safety.
“But there’s a lot of law enforcement that is not there yet because they haven’t completely made that emotional shift to seeing the child who looks like a prostitute as a victim,” Heimov said.
Maheen Kaleem, attorney at Rights4Girls, explained why this cultural shift in the system is an essential part of the two-step process of seeing and then addressing the problem.
“[Before this legislation] the child welfare system wasn’t recognizing these kids as being trafficked because of the fact that, when kids went missing from placement, there weren’t protocols in place to look for them or to flag that they needed to be sought out,” she said.
In other words, when a kid disappeared, often running away from their foster care group home and into the clutches of a trafficker, many times no one bothered to look for them, unlike what would occur if a loved and cared-for child vanished from their family.
Identifying Commercially Sexually Exploited Children
As Heimov said, SB 855 and 1322 now provide counties with funds for CSEC prevention and intervention, and a list of services that are specifically designed with the victimized children in mind. However, the first challenge across the state, say advocates, is still identifying these children.
In San Francisco, calls to the San Francisco Human Services Agency hotline come from multiple sources: teachers, shelters, group homes, police officers or anyone who identifies a child, said agency program analyst Johanna Gendelman.
“These calls aren’t coming in in the middle of the night. You’d think, ‘Some kid is being pulled out of a hotel at 3 in the morning,’ but our statistics don’t really show that,” she said. “Kids are mostly being identified through the day from their foster care provider, from their school, they are running away from health clinics. And the calls are mostly coming in during the day.” Although there have been two or three instances “where the police have pulled kids out of hotels,” she added.
Once trafficked youth are discovered, the next step is bringing them to a safe space, something that isn’t always easy to find.
“It’s a challenge in stabilizing the youth, and it's a challenge of child welfare in general,” Gendelman said. “We don’t have enough foster parents in San Francisco. We often have to send our children sometimes as far as Stockton [California].” The lack of appropriate foster parents means, it’s “difficult to place that child in a loving community,” she said. “We struggle with this in child welfare generally,”
With research pointing to a large portion of the CSEC population having been recruited from group homes, and foster care in general, child welfare advocates say there is a distinct line linking the issue of child sex trafficking, in part at least, to a problem that many have long been pushing to address.
Changing the before and after of child sexual trafficking
Nearly half (46.7 percent) of minors statewide who are suspected or confirmed as victims of domestic sex trafficking ran away from a foster care group home, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies.
Assembly Bill 403 took effect on Jan. 1, 2017, with the purpose of ending the group home model in order to better address the needs of the harder-to-place youth who enter the child dependency system. Older kids, highly traumatized youth and children, and kids who have been affected by sexual trafficking are typically put into group homes, and most often a series of group homes, where in too many cases their emotional needs are not met nor are they kept safe.
With these problems in mind, AB 403 mandates that all the group homes in the state’s 58 counties are required to relicense themselves as Short Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs), centers that are designed to provide individualized treatment services for each youth for a short period of time. Then, ideally, the youth move on to a healthy, long-term placement with an appropriate family — either with relatives or a foster family.
However, two years after AB 403’s passage, this mandate still seems to be more wish than accomplishment.
“I don’t think there’s been a lot of on-the-ground change,” Leslie Heimov said. “There’s promise of change and there’s hopefulness regarding change, but we aren’t there yet. The most difficult-to-place kids still go to group homes. Kids with the most challenges and the highest needs still go to group homes.”
While everyone agrees that the new system required by AB 403 will be an essential improvement for the state’s most at-risk foster kids, victims of child sex trafficking included, 10 months after the legislation and its Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) was to begin, there appears not to have been all that much progress.
“This isn’t going to be something where we flip the switch and see all the children out of group homes,” said Greg Rose, deputy director of child and family services for the California Department of Social Services.
According to Rose, the CCR implementation has three main goals:
- The provider community makes the shift from group homes to STRTPs.
- The Resource Family Approval process for foster care families starts, so the families can provide specialized services for victimized foster youth.
- Continuing efforts to increase the number of foster care families continue.
Goal 1: Making the shift to STRTPs
“The multisystemic treatment foster care homes, which we think hold great promise, they’re funded,” said Heimov, “but as far as we know, only a handful exist. There are very few spots for these high-end, single-child foster homes.”
In other words, while the state statute has been passed with the intention is to create nurturing environments for CSEC and other high-needs youth, with rare exceptions, the execution still needs to happen.
“The county has made funding arrangements and authorized them, but they don’t have the actual real people trained and ready to receive children,” Heimov said.
Until Goal 1 can be met, namely the opening of fully operational STRTPs, Rose explains that reliance on what is known as “congregate care” will be used, but only for a very limited time. And while kids are in these group homes, they are to receive “therapeutic interventions” — services such as counseling, health screenings, mental health services and other assistance aimed at improving the wellbeing of youth waiting for a more permanent placement, ideally with a family.
(To augment the reform that AB 403 requires, in 2016, California passed Assembly Bill 1997, which reduces the number of days kids can stay in individual counties’ problem-plagued emergency foster care shelters—used to house children facing emergency transitions between homes—from 30 to 10-day stays.)
There are deadlines for the transition from group homes to STRTPs. Former group home providers who serve foster youth must make the change no later than the last day of 2017. Providers that serve exclusively probation-involved youth, however, may request extensions through the end of 2018.
“The purpose of the STRTPs is to create a protocol whereby kids who are new to the system or who have experienced some sort of placement disruption are properly assessed to really identify their needs,” Rose said.
And, since these are short-term programs, he said, administrators will be planning for a youth’s discharge into placement with a family from day one.
According to Rose, the new short-term therapeutic facilities will be able to create specialized programs and treatments by placing children who suffer from similar experiences in the same treatment homes, so that they can get the services they really need rather than be subjected to one-size-fits all programming.
Advocates also hope that limiting the time that trafficked youth spend in facilities, away from a family or home environment, shrinks the window of opportunity during which they can be lured into trafficking, either by older kids or pimps who have previously made good use of a flawed foster care system.
Still, living in a group care environment for even up to a month is not in children’s best interest, Rose said. “We are asking the county to focus on finding families for those youth immediately, rather than sometime in a 30-day period,” he said.
But, as Heimov made clear, the kind of short-term treatment facilities Rose described are still more model than reality.
Which brings us to the second and third goals.
Goals 2 and 3: Resources and families
Another fundamental principle of CCR is that when children get their permanent homes, they should not have to change placements to get the services they require. Research shows that being placed in foster care is traumatic enough. For placements to be successful, behavioral and mental health services should be available in an in-home setting.
Rose stressed the importance of thoughtfulness when placing a child with a family, so that he or she can experience consistency in relationships as well as permanency and stability. In other words, there’s no point in placing an already traumatized kid with a family if the placement doesn’t stick.
His hope, as for others who are driving this change, is to create a paradigm shift from what used to be finding children to fit the available families, to now identifying families that fit the needs of the children.
But finding families isn’t easy. And, at the moment, there aren’t enough families for all the kids who need them, which prominently includes the CSEC kids.
“I think it is a recruitment issue,” said Heimov. “Then the recruitment challenge is compounded by the county having a reputation for not providing the support that’s promised to caregivers — and people talk.”
As a consequence, she said, potential foster parents are often reluctant to move forward with an especially complicated child if they’re not confident they’re going to get support from the county.
According to Heimov, Los Angeles County and state officials have acknowledged this urgent dilemma and are working to make changes to improve the situation.
The recruitment teams are trying new strategies with the help of organizations like Foster More, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and foundations.
But the concept of matching the family to the youth’s needs “is new,” said Heimov, “and people have to develop confidence in it before they’re going to jump into a very challenging situation with a child.”
Rose acknowledged that having enough foster families available continues to be a challenge.
Another monkey wrench thrown into the mix, according to Heimov, is the state’s recently instituted foster care family approval process, which potential foster families and relative caregivers must now go through. “Resource Family Approval,” or RFA, as it is called, requires more training for the families and relatives, which DCFS and most juvenile advocates agree is important. But the new procedure has also lengthened the time necessary to get approved.
Right now, said Heimov, out of 4,000 foster families and relative caregivers waiting to be approved, “as of two or three weeks ago,” only 331 had actually received approval, she said.
Scaling the model
The county has two pilot sites where they’re doing aggressive family finding for foster care. These two cases are going well, but this is a very small portion of the entire county and it has yet to reach cross-county, Heimov said.
“LA has a long and sad history of instituting really excellent pilot programs, but when they try to roll them out countywide they aren’t fully implemented.” Thus, she said, the programs don’t work as well as they did in the pilot. “And everyone throws their hands up and wonders why. And the why is because they lose fidelity to the original model when they try to go to scale,” Heimov said.
In short, the county is using a variety of methods to address the foster family deficit, many of which show real promise according to several DCFS sources. But finding new and innovative ways to successfully recruit more foster families, as with the changeover of the group homes, takes time.
The legal side
Matters are further complicated by the fact that, in addition to the need for better care and stability for these children, there are also often legal hurdles for CSEC victims to deal with, which mean further challenges for those who hope to help them heal and to thrive.
“When we get the girls, we’re not only getting a victim,” said Iglesias of Children and Family Services, “we’re getting someone who’s got involvement with the criminal system. They may be testifying against their pimp,” or they may have outstanding cases themselves. This means not only legal complexities, she said, but also the possibility of additional trauma to an already traumatized young person.
“CSEC is a sexy issue right now and people want to learn about it and address it, but I think we need to slow the roll and learn how to do this intentionally and carefully in a way that benefits and helps the girls,” Iglesias said.
Yet, despite all the challenges, Iglesias and Heimov also see progress.
“It is a hard population, we’re learning as we go,” Iglesias said. “I think we’ve come a long way though.” At least, she said “we truly mean it when we say there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”
This story has been updated.
This story was a cooperative effort among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange's Los Angeles bureau, the 2016 Journalism Reporting Fellowship for The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and WitnessLA.
As “bathroom bills,” military transgender bans and elimination of protections for LGBTQ federal employees demonstrate, we are a long way from a society in which coming out is a realistic option for all. The truth of this likely hits youth the hardest, who still risk family rejection, bullying, even homelessness for coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
The least we can do is demand that LGBTQ youth’s needs are concretely recognized in the agencies and systems created to serve young people. Does your local school district include LGBTQ-supportive sexual health literacy? If not, press your local schools to get sexual health literacy out of the closet and into a regular curriculum. By doing this, you not only increase understanding among all youth about a vital aspect of being human, but you will increase health and decrease bullying of LGBTQ youth.
It is intolerable that such programs largely don’t exist in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems where queer youth are represented at more than twice the rate of their numbers nationwide, and where they rely on system officials for their most basic needs, including sexual health care. How do young people in these facilities thrive when their very existence is denied or treated as aberrant?
October is national Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM). If awareness leads to action, we will see increased advocacy to decrease the number of young people caught up in the so-called justice system. In recognition of the reality that that number is sadly substantial, the Center for HIV Law and Policy’s focus for YJAM is on policy changes that would make future National Coming Out Days (Oct. 11) a safe option for all the young people in detention facilities across the country.
Access to scientifically sound sexual health care would be a very good start. What’s more, it’s part of the essential care detention facilities are obligated to provide to young people in custody. When youth detention facilities fail to provide a basic part of essential health care, we should hold them accountable.
Comprehensive, LGBTQ-affirming sexual health care includes sexually transmitted infection diagnosis, treatment and prevention, including access to condoms and other forms of birth control, pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and sexual health literacy programming that promotes understanding of the full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It includes guided instruction on healthy sexual attitudes, relationships and behaviors. It includes addressing mental health substance abuse. And it includes services that address the violence based on discriminatory views and stereotypes of various sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.
Professional standards and expert consensus support provision of these health services for all youth. In view of the ballooning rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly among young people, sexual health care is also smart public health policy.
To learn more about what you can do to uphold the sexual health rights of youth in detention, check out Teen SENSE, a project of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.
Pepis Rodriguez is a staff attorney for The Center for HIV Law and Policy.
In the early fall, I will complete my 11th year at Jobs for the Future and my 46th year working in the youth-serving field. It’s fair to say I’ve played a lot of roles and worn many hats.
I’ve directed projects, written grants, managed complex partnerships, worked with foundation partners, facilitated professional development for teachers and youth program staff, and mediated conflict-ridden meetings. I’ve received some coaching — perhaps more of which might have benefitted me — and have coached and supported many colleagues and partners.
Nearing the end of my career, I enjoy coaching above all. Currently, I coach West Coast sites that are creating education-to-career pathways for opportunity youth (including those who are or have been in the foster care or juvenile justice systems) through receipt of Social Innovation Fund grants. I work primarily with intermediary organization leaders who are responsible for system work — bringing together multiple institutional partners (K-12, postsecondary, community-based agencies, local state agency offices and employers) to build richer and more connected pathways and address policies that pose barriers.
I also work with community-based agency leads who are designing new programs. They often want help with provision of on-the-ground technical assistance (program design, instructional support, advice on recruitment and so on). At Jobs for the Future, our team of coaches works closely to support and learn from each other, and ensure we deliver just-in-time assistance and resources to our communities, whether they are changing systems or launching programs.
An old article from the Harvard Business Review always comes to mind when thinking about the value of coaching. The article, “A Survival Guide for Leaders” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, talks about the tumult involved in managing complex change efforts.
In our field, so many leaders at the system or program level are involved in this difficult work. Partners must adopt different attitudes and beliefs, be willing to work together in new ways, change outdated practices and challenge long-standing policies. The leaders I see are often ensnarled in hostile, resistant or seemingly immovable environments in which change happens slowly, and many setbacks are encountered along the way.
At the heart of “A Survival Guide for Leaders” is the notion that effective leaders need to operate both “in and above the fray,” keeping their heads as they move between action and objective reflection. The metaphor from the article that most strikes home is one in which leaders need a kitchen table (a safe haven to plan and adjust tasks) and a balcony (a perch to dispassionately view the action) in order to stay grounded and effective.
That is where the value of a coach comes in. In a nutshell, a good coach helps leaders carve out dedicated time and space for both kitchen table conversations (learning, action planning and task priorities) and balcony discussions (reflection and strategic planning). What I hear most from Jobs for the Future’s clients is that without coaching, this kind of reflection time is lost in the midst of pressing day-to-day action. Too often leaders get lost in the fray.
What makes a good coach?
Of course, for coaching to be valuable, the coach must be skilled. In my experience, a coach must have expertise and knowledge in the field, yet be willing to take the time necessary to understand local conditions. Without this, advice lacks context and nuance. Above all, a coach must be good at establishing trust and should have unconditional positive regard for the client(s).
The coach needs to have good communication and facilitation skills, along with the ability to deeply listen without judgment. Good coaches are usually skilled strategic thinkers, and know when to provide support as well as when to push and challenge. Coaches with a sense of humor delight me.
Personally, I love coaches who tell stories, as they help me see situations differently. I also love metaphors that help me constructively (re)frame or normalize difficult situations. Further, I always feel blessed when an interaction with a coach helps me validate that the work is truly hard, that I’m not alone and that despite my limitations, I am capable and up to the task at hand.
Effective use of the coach
As a coach, I notice the difference between leaders who use coaches well and those who don’t. Those who do are willing to be vulnerable and are eager to learn. They are confident in their abilities but grounded enough to know that they can and want to grow and learn. Leaders who use coaches well are curious, honest and transparent. They are always looking for ways to use the coach as an ally to whom they can admit that they don’t have all the answers — or, alternatively, announce that everything is going swimmingly.
Leaders who benefit from coaching use the coach’s on-site time effectively by bringing the expertise and knowledge of the coach to partners who need to come into the fold in terms of influencing, technical knowledge or in ramping up their commitments to the project. Leaders who value coaching make good decisions about when they need the kitchen table or the balcony, and use the coach to keep focused and refreshed. And, of course, when the relationship really hums, both local leaders and coaches grow professionally from their interactions.
Lifelong learning/Lifelong coaching
Perhaps by now I’ve sold you on the value of coaching (or confirmed what you already knew). The problem is that coaches come and go. They usually show up at your doorstep when you receive a grant, supporting you in achieving the aims of that specific project.
Once the project is finished, so is the coach. He or she moves on and you do too. If you have been in this field long, however, you know that championing change is lifelong work. The work doesn’t stop because a grant ends. You will still be doing the work even if you change jobs, just from a different vantage point. Wherever you find yourself, you will encounter issues and still have need for that kitchen table … and a balcony.
Good coaches are out there and ready to be summoned. The key is not to let coaching languish in the press of day-to-day tasks or troubles. Once a leader has experienced the value of coaching, he or she must decide if it’s worth the effort to ensure that this function is a continued priority. If it is, the leader might seek a single coach who plays the roles of both confidant and strategic thinker.
Or one might try to identify multiple coaches who address differing needs across time — champion, strategic thinker, constructive critic or knowledgeable, good-humored jester. A leader may gravitate toward trusted friends, work colleagues, senior or retired professionals, or even wise acquaintances in unrelated fields. If asked, they are likely to be glad to contribute, give back or share in this way. It’s important to be clear about the assistance, time commitment and specific goals you want help to achieve.
In the youth-serving field — dynamic and complex, yet fragmented and underfunded — we all need reminders that our work is both vital and difficult, and that change can feel like a long and lonely road. We need to know and feel connected to a national community with history and movement; one that has been, and continues to be, committed to the health and wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable, yet promising young people.
We need to celebrate our successes and not allow them to be obscured by all that is broken and needs to be fixed. To make a difference as leaders, it is important to stay healthy, awake and grounded. And while our commitments and our assets buoy us, good coaching can really help.
Terry Grobe is the director of youth pathways at Jobs for the Future’s Oakland, California, office. The focus of her long career has been devoted to improving education and career outcomes for low-income youth and youth of color. She has worked on or led many state and national initiatives. Currently, she coaches West Coast sites that have received Social Innovation Fund grants through Jobs for the Future/Aspen Forum for Community Solutions and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
WASHINGTON — Nearly 700,000 American kids were found to be victims of abuse or neglect in fiscal 2015, and the public ought to be just as worried that kids who haven’t been abused are being victimized by a heavy-handed bureaucracy, a veteran child rights advocate says.
Child welfare officials found evidence of “maltreatment” in more than 683,000 cases in fiscal 2015, data newly released by nonprofit research group Child Trends show. That’s a slight decline from the year before, when there were more than 702,000 such cases. Yet the sustained allegations of abuse and neglect were only a fraction of officials’ caseload — state bureaucrats opened more than 2.8 million investigations in fiscal 2015 and more than 3.2 million investigations the year before, the data show.
For Matt Fraidin, associate dean of the University of the District of Columbia law school, the numbers illustrate a child welfare system that is hopelessly out of whack.
“According to the data, 2.2 million children who were not maltreated nonetheless were subjected to intrusive, traumatizing ‘investigations or assessment.’ That’s an awful lot of kids’ lives unnecessarily disrupted, a lot of children unnecessarily subjected to fear, shame and trauma,” he said. Fraidin has spent decades working to reform child welfare systems in Washington and around the country.
The percentage of sustained allegations was relatively consistent from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2015, Child Trends’ data show. Twenty-two percent of investigations determined “maltreatment” in 2014; 24 percent in 2015. There are now some 428,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, the data show.
Fraidin says he’s worried about the methodology behind some of those sustained abuse or neglect accusations. Barely 13 percent of the kids who come into foster care have been physically abused and another 4 percent have been sexually abused. That leaves hundreds of thousands who are victims of “neglect” — a nebulous term and one loaded with disturbing racial, ethnic and class undertones, he says.
“It’s defined as the lack of food, clothing, supervision or adequate housing,” Fraidin said. “All of those are fundamental aspects of being poor, not necessarily of dangerous parenting.”
While 25 percent of the foster care population is African American, African Americans are only 14 percent of the population.
Perhaps worse than the racial disproportions, more than one in 10 kids is in foster care because of “inadequate housing,” Fraidin said.
“That’s poverty, plain and simple,” he said. “It seems un-American to destroy kids’ lives just because they made the bad decision to be born to poor parents.
“You know the solution for ‘inadequate housing?’” Fraidin asked. “It's adequate housing. It's also less punitive, less expensive and less traumatizing for kids than foster care. If we really care about children, it is time to get over our negative assumptions about low-income families of color. Our biases lead to the harsh, punitive response of foster care, instead of proven, humane, cost-effective approaches that keep families together.”
For decades, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Joseph J. Doyle has examined the impact of foster care on its kids. His findings have been consistent: For kids whose cases are “marginal” — lots of gray areas, official intervention could be argued either way — foster care is devastating. Kids in foster care are more likely to wind up in jail, more likely to become teen parents, more likely to be poor and more likely to wind up the subject of delinquency petitions and more likely to end up in emergency rooms.
For Fraidin, you can’t make it any plainer than that.
“The data reflect a child welfare system that harms more children than it helps,” he said. “Too many children are the subject of false or inaccurate anonymous reports, too many investigated, too many separated from their families, too many languish harmfully in foster care and too many age out of foster care.
“We end up,” Fraidin added, “with kids in the system who would be better off at home, whose lives didn’t need to be upended and who get ignored and overlooked by the caseworkers, lawyers and judges who are supposed to be watching out for them.”
This story has been updated.
As any high schooler can tell you, finding paid work experience in today’s economy can be a real challenge. But youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice and foster care systems face a particularly difficult road. In addition to the challenges of system involvement, youth with disabilities often encounter discriminatory attitudes or hiring practices when searching for a job, and they may need additional supports, workplace accommodations or specialized training to secure and maintain employment.
These added hurdles dramatically hinder these young people’s chance of success; research shows that youth and young adults with disabilities are employed at less than half the rate of their nondisabled peers.
The good news is that there is now a federal policy that could help remove some of these impediments. Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), each state’s vocational rehabilitation agency must set aside at least 15 percent of its federal funds to provide “pre-employment transition services” to students with disabilities. The services required under the statute include:
- Job exploration counseling;
- Work-based learning experiences;
- Counseling on post-secondary programs;
- Workplace readiness training; and
- Instruction in self-advocacy.
But what do these legal requirements mean for youth in practice?
“Now, vocational rehabilitation agencies have to provide actual work experience and activities while a kid is still in school,” explained Joe Cipolla, director of employer services at JEVS Human Services. JEVS is one of the first providers in Philadelphia to begin a pre-employment transition services program under WIOA. We spoke with Joe and his colleague Sarah Hollister about their experiences designing and launching the program. They explained that JEVS is using WIOA funding to offer three key services to youth in several Philadelphia schools:
- Group training in work readiness and self-advocacy skills;
- Job shadowing, where students observe workers doing jobs during the school day; and
- Paid internships in one to three work areas of interest to the student.
These services function as a package, Joe explained, “taking a youth from ‘here’s how to think about work,’ to ‘let’s look at some things you’re interested in,’ and finally to ‘let’s get you a position doing that.’”
Joe and Sarah identified several innovative approaches they have been able to take because of the new WIOA funding. “One of the exciting things about the program is that the paid work experiences are so customizable,” Sarah explained, describing how, through the JEVS program, a student who had an interest in event planning was able to get paid for her work helping to plan the prom for the JEVS E3 Center.
Joe also emphasized the potential power of the collaboration between the school district, private providers and the vocational rehabilitation agency. It takes a new level of coordination among these entities to ensure program success, which “really expands the options available to students,” he explained. By combining the school district’s educational expertise with providers’ connections to employers and community resources, students can receive more integrated and holistic career and academic services.
Although the pre-employment transition services opportunities made possible under WIOA are not specific to youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system, programs could be designed to target those groups. A majority of system-involved youth have some sort of disability and are likely eligible for the services. WIOA also incentivizes states to design workforce programs that reach high-risk youth, including those in the child welfare or juvenile justice system.
Here are some recommendations from our report for how pre-employment transition services programs could better reach system-involved youth:
- Create a clear, written process for identification, referral and service provision for youth in foster care or the juvenile justice system.
- Develop a pre-employment transition services program in a juvenile justice or child welfare facility.
- Incorporate referrals to the vocational rehabilitation agency into the transition planning and reentry processes.
The passage of WIOA won’t mean the end of every struggle that a student with a disability in foster care or the juvenile justice system ever faces. But with the grit these youth so often exhibit, and these new resources for programs who assist them, this new policy can take one hurdle out of their way.
Elisa Egonu is a legal intern and Karen U. Lindell a staff attorney for the Juvenile Law Center.
As fall rolls around, parents and young people are preparing for a new school year. So too are teachers, school administrators and, in many places, school-based police officers and school resource officers (SROs). In its 2015 report on public school safety and discipline, the National Center for Educational Statistics estimates that there are more than 43,000 school resource officers and other sworn police personnel working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools. With such a significant presence of law enforcement within our educational institutions, the time is ripe to re-examine and reimagine their role.
In 2013-14, 13 percent of all public schools reported at least one serious violent incident, and 2 percent reported at least one physical attack or fight with a weapon. Fifty-eight percent reported physical attacks or fights without a weapon, and 56 percent reported threats of physical violence (9 percent of which included a weapon and 47 percent that did not). Overall, the rate of serious violent incidents per 1,000 students was 0.5.
Regardless of how one might answer the question of whether the presence of police officers in schools is, or is not, a deterrent to serious violence, it is clear that since the 1999 Columbine school massacre, we, as a society, have been unwilling to accept the risk of violence. But increasingly, school-based police officers and SROs are being charged, not only with addressing violence, but also with removing from schools those children who are deemed to be disruptive to the educational environment. Across the nation, children are subject to removal, and even arrest, not only for things they do but oftentimes for things they do not do, including subjective infractions such as “defiance” and “noncompliance.”
We all remember the 2015 video recording from a South Carolina school where a girl was put in a headlock and thrown to the ground by a male police officer who had been called because she refused a teacher’s order to put away a cellphone. Not only was the excessive force shocking, but later, when the totality of the girl’s circumstances came to light, the system failure was even starker. At the time of her arrest, she was undergoing several familial challenges and was in foster care. Though it is impossible in hindsight to say whether those challenges were responsible for her refusal to cooperate that day, what is clear is that in an ideal world, an inquiry into her personal circumstances would have at least been made.
Among the children excluded from schools each year, an estimated 50 to 75 percent have behavioral or mental health needs and some estimates say as many as 70 percent have cognitive or learning challenges that may make school settings unreceptive, or even hostile, places for them.
Additionally, there are children whose home and family circumstances make it difficult to attend school on a regular basis, focus and perform up to standards when they do attend, or respond appropriately to teachers and other authority figures. Other children may be victims of abuse or other trauma, making them more likely to be triggered by the rules, strictures or approaches that are typical of the school environment.
At the very least, these data suggest that we may be overusing and misusing the most extreme tool at our disposal in an effort to preserve the peace in our learning spaces. In Philadelphia, following many years of experience in the police department, and after rising to the level of deputy police commissioner, Kevin Bethel began to suspect as much.
As deputy commissioner, Bethel and his officers found that too often, children arrested in schools were no real threat to the public and were certainly not “delinquent.” Instead, they were more likely to be “defiant,” “insolent,” “belligerent” and in some cases “disruptive”— adjectives that, in the most benign interpretation, could be considered accurate descriptors of normal adolescent behavior, but could also be seen as indicators of a need for supportive social services.
With the cooperation of law enforcement, the juvenile courts and, perhaps most notably, the Department of Human Services, in 2012, former Deputy Commissioner Bethel began to reimagine the role of law enforcement in the School District of Philadelphia.
After developing memoranda of agreement and a process with his partners, Bethel started small — rather than arresting students for minor, nonviolent offenses, school-based police officers and SROs would divert these children and give them and their families the option to receive case management and support services.
In the first academic year (2014-15) of the Philadelphia School Diversion Program, arrests declined 54 percent and there were 1,051 fewer behavioral incidents in the schools. And just as important, through the program’s intervention, hundreds of children and their families gained access to services they might not otherwise have received.
The Philadelphia experience reinforces what we already know from the data — that children funneled into the juvenile justice system are often not “bad” but rather in need of services, and that, all too often, schools become a pipeline to prison rather than a pathway to success. By simply reimagining the role of law enforcement in our schools, and by refocusing their presence toward helping students and their families, we might just restore our youth, our schools and our communities along the way.
Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.
In today’s world, having access to your vital records (birth certificate, Social Security card, state ID card) is, in fact, vital. These records are essential in our day to day lives in a variety of ways including:
- Securing housing
- Applying for health insurance
- Furthering one’s education and getting financial aid
- Interacting with law enforcement
- Procuring public benefits
- Obtaining employment
There is, however, an undocumented population of U.S. citizens among us: system-involved youth. What we mean by this is large numbers of youth leave the child welfare and juvenile justice systems without their vital documents or they are not able to maintain them due to housing instability. Not having these records makes smoothly transitioning to adulthood difficult, if not impossible.
The consequences system-involved youth experience by not having these essential records include potential housing instability, the inability to pursue certain educational opportunities and financial aid, and lack of access to public benefits. Not having identification can also be a barrier to employment. This is the situation Bruce Morgan, Juvenile Law Center’s youth advocate alum, faced.
Bruce, who recently aged out of foster care, struggled to obtain the identification documents necessary to pursue employment. Bruce aged out of foster care before federal law — the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act — required that all youth aging out of the foster care system be provided their vital documents. Bruce was persistent and sought the assistance of the Achieving Independence Center in Philadelphia, which provides aftercare services to foster youth. He obtained his identification documents, but lost them when he became homeless.
Two years ago, Bruce applied for a job with AmeriCorps and realized during the application process that he did have his identification documents. He did not know how to navigate the system and did not have funds to pay any of the fees required to obtain vital documents. Luckily for Bruce, AmeriCorps was willing to work with him and held the position until he could locate his identification. However, for other youth, including many of Bruce’s friends, this flexibility is not always available and job and training opportunities can be lost as youth try to obtain their identification.
While the state of Pennsylvania does require foster youth to receive their vital documents upon discharge, there are many system-involved youth who do not receive these documents or are not able to maintain them when they leave care.
Recently, there have been policies enacted to address securing identification documents for youth in the child welfare system. In Philadelphia, the child welfare agency requires that a caseworker for the private provider agency contracted to serve a youth request a youth’s vital documents at the very moment they enter the system. The agency also requires that youth are provided their identification documents before they leave care at age 18 or older.
According to Bruce, vital records are a lifeline because “everywhere you go you need proof of identity … any job, school or just walking on the street in certain neighborhoods You need a way to identify yourself.” He suggests the following reforms:
- Require that youth be educated about the importance of obtaining vital records before discharge and maintaining records after discharge.
- Provide youth training in how to advocate for themselves in court and case planning so that they can report on the status of their identification and whether they have obtained it.
Identity verification has become a necessary and common part of our daily lives. To participate fully in society, and for youth to have a fair shot at making a life for themselves in the adult world, they must have access to their vital documents. To make this possible, our laws, policies, and most importantly practices, must make this a certainty for young people.