Los Angeles Assemblymember Isaac Bryan has emerged as a leader on child welfare issues in Sacramento.
It’s a rare lawmaker who can stand on the steps of a state Capitol building and talk about his family of 15. His time in foster care as a baby. His eight adopted siblings and their struggles with severed and recreated family bonds. The different places they all landed: college, jail, the streets.
“I have more brothers and sisters who are unhoused or incarcerated than I do that have been to college,” Isaac Bryan, 30, told a crowd gathered on May 11 in Sacramento, California to protest the overreach of child protective services.
Bryan’s past drives his work as a recently elected Democratic state assemblymember. And he has quickly become a leading author of bills to improve child welfare services. If signed into law, his legislation would provide tax credits to employers who hire foster youth, strengthen reunification services for parents trying to regain custody of their children and ensure that dependency court clients receive documents in the languages most commonly spoken in their homes.
Bryan is a rarity in California’s state capital as a legislator who has personal experience within the child welfare system. State lawmakers in Washington and Mississippi grew up in foster care, but Bryan is believed to be the only such elected statehouse official in Sacramento. At age 30, he is also the second youngest California legislator, four years the senior of Silicon Valley Assemblymember Alex Lee (D). He is also one of 11 Black state lawmakers here in the nation’s most populous state.
Former longtime state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D), Bryan’s mentor, calls him “a wicked smart leader” who has effectively used rigorous research skills and his experience as a community organizer to best serve constituents. And his bills so far, in this overwhelmingly progressive and Democratic Legislature, have met little opposition.
In an interview, Mitchell said Bryan understands the role public policy can play to improve the lives of people typically left with little lobbying might in the state Capitol: “People who need government to provide critical support, people who look to government to develop systems that don’t cause greater harm, but really do what we claim we want to do — which is to help them.”
In recent years, veteran Democrats who worked to improve foster care and juvenile justice have departed. They include Mitchell — who authored bills to support relative caregivers and bar the prosecution of teens as adults, and state Sen. Jim Beall, who crafted the landmark extension of foster care until age 21. At the end of the year, Assemblymember Mark Stone, who authored laws scaling back overuse of group homes in California, will also leave office.
Focus is now turning to the new generation of lawmakers.
Susanna Kniffen of the Oakland-based nonprofit Children Now said these departures have left some advocates with “a little bit of fear” about who will step up for the roughly 56,000 California children and youth in foster care.
But she said working with Bryan and his office on the tax credit bill — which would provide up to $30,000 in tax breaks to employers who hire foster youth — has left her feeling hopeful.
“People who have been through the system are always going to come in with a more realistic and nuanced approach to those issues,” Kniffen said. “Their peers also listen to them in a different way because they’ve actually experienced these systems. So it’s important not only for their own voice in their own vote, but also in the impact that they have on the members around them.”
Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a nonprofit that helps women transition back into society after incarceration, agreed.
“Issac understands why our safety net is so often broken down,” she said, “and we expect him to carry that moral compass forward.”
Bryan describes his bills as focusing on “poverty alleviation,” part of an effort to save taxpayers money and end the ways in which government systems penalize the poor. One of his bills, Assembly Bill 1686, would prohibit child support agencies from collecting money from parents in the process of reunifying with their children — a practice that effectively makes them pay for the cost of foster care.
Instead of such punitive measures, he said, the state needs to “really invest in the kind of infrastructure to produce thriving families.”
Bryan also wants more kids kept out of foster care altogether.
“We know that outcomes for all families and for young people in particular are strongest when families can be reunified, when children can be kept home from the beginning,” he said.
And this too is known, Bryan said: “that the longer a child spends in the child welfare system, the more detached they get from their family, the greater the likelihood that you end up in the juvenile justice system where the likelihood is that you do poorly in school.”
“And then all of that translates to additional bad life outcomes.”
Bryan was born in Dallas, Texas in 1992. He told The Imprint that his 16-year-old mother became pregnant after surviving a rape. She carried her baby to term, but he was adopted at birth by a white couple that Bryan describes as loving and supportive. Leonard and Susan Bryan were foster parents who have helped raise more than 200 children over 26 years.
But opening their home to so many children was often a financial struggle. Bryan said it was hard for his parents to afford the expenses of raising such a large family, and they moved frequently while he was growing up. From Texas to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then various cities in Southern California starting in the sixth grade.
Bryan attended 11 public schools, including three elementary schools, three high schools, and a couple of community colleges. But despite being identified early on as gifted and talented, he was failing classes during his middle school years. Still, he worked his way through community college before finding his way to the University of Arizona.
There, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology, and began a career in justice reform by working alongside a team of federal monitors to enforce a U.S. Department of Justice Consent Decree with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
Bryan later attended UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, where he honed research and advocacy skills that would later help drive statewide legislation and justice reforms in Los Angeles County.
In 2017, Bryan was the founding executive director of the Black Policy Project at the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, a think tank focused on producing community-driven research to spur policy change. He also provided policy analysis with the university’s influential Million Dollar Hoods project, an effort to track the “fiscal and human costs of mass incarceration in Los Angeles.” He worked on researching the impact of cash bail on Los Angeles neighborhoods, reentry services for people returning from lockup and a data-driven analysis of school discipline in Los Angeles schools.
Facing pressure from racial justice activists and students, L.A.’s school board voted to strip about a third of the school police department budget in 2020, with many advocates citing Bryan’s research that found widespread racial disparities in arrests on campus. Former state Sen. Mitchell, now a member of the influential Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, first met Bryan in 2017 when she was chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. He had come to Sacramento to share his research about establishing a minimum age for the state’s juvenile justice system.
Working alongside Mitchell and youth advocates gave Bryan a tantalizing taste of creating policy change at the state’s highest levels of the government, he said.
“I had been organizing before then, but that was a real take-off point,” he said. “After that, you couldn’t tell me we couldn’t change everything bad in California.”
With a newfound taste for the power of politics, Bryan served as an adviser to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager. After Kamlager’s South L.A.-area Assembly seat became vacant, Bryan handily won a special election to represent the district.
His Assembly Bill 2159, now being considered by fellow lawmakers, represents a continuation of Bryan’s justice work. Under state law, parents who are incarcerated after being arrested but before being convicted of a crime can automatically be stripped of the ability to reunify with their children in foster care. “The idea that you would deny reunification services because somebody has been alleged to have committed an offense, knowing that the likelihood of coming into contact with the criminal legal system is exacerbated by the fact that you are Black and brown or Indigenous, or live in the wrong zip code, is terrible policy,” he said.
During his run for public office, Bryan often mentioned his siblings and their struggles as his inspiration for legislation like this. Most of his adoptive siblings have faced deep challenges throughout adulthood, he said, despite eventually finding a stable home in childhood. He’s visited one brother in juvenile detention, and watched another lose his child to foster care. Others have experienced homelessness. But they stay in touch, despite being spread across the country these days — and he sees his political work as the best way he can help them.
“By the time I’m no longer in office, or no longer on this earth,” Bryan said, “I hope I can look back and say that these systems are working better because I touched them.”