Bill to Decriminalize Foster Youth Goes to California Senate

A new bill that child advocacy groups are hoping will curb arrests of foster youth in group homes will likely be introduced today in the State Senate.

The new legislation in its current form will trigger an investigation into group homes that call the police frequently on the criminal conduct of foster youth, limit out-of-pocket restitution demanded of foster youth and reduce time spent in juvenile detention centers.

“The purpose of this bill is to prevent foster youth from being arrested and charged for misbehavior that wouldn’t happen to anyone other than a foster youth,” said Martha Matthews, an attorney for the advocacy group Public Counsel, who is helping author the bill. “We don’t want foster care to be a pipeline to prison.”

Matthews said that normal teenage misbehaviors become serious, life-altering events for foster youth living in group homes. Instead of handling youth in-house, the homes frequently call the police for the slightest impropriety, exposing youths to the criminal justice system.

Several years ago, Matthews represented a foster youth who had been charged with a felony assault with a deadly weapon. The deadly weapon: an avocado.

The foster youth, who lived in a group home, had gotten angry and thrown the gnarled dark green fruit, known for its high fat and creamy texture, at someone. The group home called the police.

Under the bill, an investigation by the state agency Community Care Licensing is initiated if a group home calls the police on its foster youth for criminal misconduct more than once a month on average over six months. The state requires group homes to have behavior management plans for the youth.

“You don’t want the cops to be your behavioral management plan,” said Matthews. “The bill creates a threshold by separating the normal, well-managed group homes from the more chaotic ones that call the police all the time.”

The bill can only trigger an investigation; it lacks teeth when it comes to corrective action. The result and consequence, if any, are left completely up to the investigators.

The County Welfare Directors Association, a nonprofit group of welfare workers, has tracked the bill and offered amendments. The association hasn’t had a chance to read over the latest draft and therefore takes no position on the bill, according to their communication coordinator Sarah Jimenez.

Sometimes a foster youth will get mad and smash something, often resulting in restitution. Matthews said most of the damage is covered by the group home’s insurances, but the courts still makes the youth pay the full amount. The new bill will limit the restitution to only what isn’t covered by insurance.

If a foster youth is arrested, they can be held for long periods in detention, because, unlike kids with parents, they don’t have anyone to pick them up and can spend weeks in jail, according to child advocates. AB 388 aims to reduce the time foster youth spend in detention by requiring immediate notification of the child welfare services and attorney to find alternative placement.

There is a paucity of data to support the bill’s assertion that foster youth in group homes are disproportionately thrust into the criminal justice system without good cause. AB 388, in part, is meant to collect this data.

A 2011 study in Los Angeles does demonstrate that youth involved in both foster care and the juvenile justice systems fare much worse than those in just one of the systems.

Los Angeles youths who exit both foster care and juvenile justice earn less as young adults and cost the public more than youths who only exit foster care, and are more than twice as likely to have been treated for a serious mental illness

“We didn’t realize crossover youth would have such striking distance,” said Dennis Culhane, one of the study’s six authors, speaking with The Imprint’s John Kelly in 2011. “We knew it would find they’d be troubled, but didn’t expect this difference of degree to show up.”

Assemblymember Wesley Chesbro (D) introduced the bill, which will be endorsed by Public Counsel, California Youth Connection, Youth Law Center and East Bay Children’s Law Offices.

Brian Rinker is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a recent graduate from San Francisco State University’s journalism program.

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