Strengthening California’s Foster Youth Bill of Rights

In 2001, California passed the sweeping Foster Youth Bill of Rights into law. The law’s goals were ambitious. It intended both to inform the state’s 63,000 foster youth of the full range of social services available to them as well as to clarify their basic rights in the state’s foster youth system.

These rights included the right to live in a safe, comfortable home, the right to be treated with respect, the right to refuse to take certain medications, plus other various health, family and court access rights. There was also an ombudsman’s office set up within the California Department of Social Services, complete with a toll-free number designed to field questions about services available and to handle complaints about abuse in the system.

When this law passed, it had a powerful ripple effect on other states considering similar legislation. California’s law became the model for the nation.

Fifteen years later, there is much direct and anecdotal evidence that the law is not living up to its full potential, and a bill moving through the California legislature is intended to change that.

Findings in the 2013 Annual Report released by the Office of the California Foster Care Ombudsman demonstrate how the Foster Youth Bill of Rights is falling short:

“In some instances during interviews and presentations to youth in foster care, the FCO [Foster Care Ombudsman], found that not all social workers had reviewed the foster youth rights with dependent children as required by W&IC section 16501.1(f)(4). Children and youth in foster care reported to the FCO that they were not always aware that they had rights and that no one had informed them of their rights.”

The report goes on to say that some children and youth didn’t talk to their social worker or attorney about rights violations out of fear of being removed from their current home or that their caregiver might retaliate. 

These problems with the law’s implementation were also reflected in an August 2015 hearing on foster group home reviews by the California Department of Social Services. When foster youth in group homes were asked if they or their peers would receive a negative consequence if they refused to take their psychotropic medications, 49 out of the 76 responded “yes.”

Vanessa Hernandez of California Youth Connection, a foster youth advocacy group, also highlighted the underperformance of the current law. “Caregivers were accessing ombudsman services at a greater rate than foster youth. This is a clear sign that the information was not being properly disseminated,” Hernandez said.

Tisha Ortiz, a Youth Advocate with the National Center for Youth Law, got a bird’s eye view of this problem. She was a client in the California foster care system from 2001 to 2010. During that time, she witnessed the following abuses against herself and/or her peers:

  • Verbal abuse by group home staff, particularly when it came to disparaging overweight clients.
  • The use of food as a weapon, i.e. the lack of adequate portion sizes at meals for some.
  • Punishment for refusing to take medications in the form of stripping almost all personal belongings, extended lock-ups and isolation in rooms, and not being allowed to leave the group home for extended periods of time.
  • Use of excessive manual labor, sometimes up to four hours of heavy physical work, as a punishment for some clients.
  • A staff member putting his fingers down Ms. Ortiz’s throat in an attempt to force feed her medications.

According to Ms. Ortiz, group home staff did not review the Foster Youth Bill of Rights with clients. She was only vaguely aware of the law through a poster. Ortiz felt that if more foster children knew about their right to complain to an ombudsman, their right to refuse taking medications and other legal rights, then these types of abuses in the system would be drastically reduced.

Assembly Bill 1067, introduced last year and sponsored by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Compton), was designed to both update and upgrade California’s Foster Youth Bill of Rights law. It would require a working group of stakeholders to draft proposals to the state legislature to reinvigorate the law. The group would review federal and state laws to identify the rights of children in foster care, recommend necessary updates to the Foster Youth Bill of Rights, review the manner in which foster children are apprised of their rights and recommend changes in the frequency or ways foster children are notified of their rights.

Anna Johnson, a policy advocate at the National Center for Youth Law, is hopeful that the working committee will come up with the following recommendations:

  • Establishment of a required form, filled out by the social worker and signed off by foster youth every six months to vouch that the youth were informed of their rights under the law. This proposal is intended to increase accountability in making sure information on the law is properly disseminated.
  • Information on the law being made available on a more user-friendly website as well as on phone apps in order to reach its intended audience.
  • Clearer outlines to foster youth of their rights to mental health services.

The bill passed the California Assembly unanimously, 78-0, in January of this year. It has since cleared two state senate committees. It has no organized opposition, and advocates predict it will be signed into law by the end of the year.

“It [the bill] will have a huge impact. A majority of foster youth are not aware of their rights. Once they are made aware of their rights, they could more easily utilize the law,” said Renita Polk, a staffer with Gipson’s office.

Other advocates have expressed hope that this proposal will both inform the state’s foster youth of their rights and services available, and ultimately cut down on the number of foster youth abuse incidents statewide.

Glenn Daigon
 currently works for the Laborers International Union of North America in Washington, D.C. He wrote this story for the Journalism for Social Change online course.

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