A half-dozen bills now on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk aim to prevent children from entering foster care simply because their parents are poor, and to better protect LGBTQ youth and the integrity of Black and brown families.
Long a trendsetter nationwide in progressive child welfare policy, this year’s slate of bills passed by the Legislature is no exception. Pending bills would spread the practice of “colorblind” decision-making, make it harder to terminate the custody rights of incarcerated parents, and direct more families to supportive services rather than to child welfare investigators.
Those pieces of legislation are among the roughly two dozen bills that seek changes to child welfare practices on Newsom’s desk, which face a Sept. 30 deadline to be signed into law.
He has so far agreed to two key pieces of legislation, including Assembly Bill 2866, authored by Republican Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, a former deputy district attorney. Cunningham’s bill requires juvenile dependency court judges to use a higher standard of proof when determining whether parents whose children were taken into foster care were offered reasonable reunification services.
Going forward, judges must abide by the “clear and convincing evidence” standard when considering whether parents are receiving reunification services, the same legal threshold used at hearings to terminate parental rights.
Supporters included the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego, the Juvenile Court Judges of California and Dependency Legal Services, a nonprofit firm representing parents in eight northern California counties.
The bill’s supporters argued “there is no justification for trying less hard to keep families together early in the dependency process.” They are quoted in a legislative analysis stating: “a county has exactly the same burden to show it is offering reasonable services at early stage periodic reviews as it has at the final hearing when a court decides those services haven’t worked and termination of parental rights is the only option to keep the child safe.”
Tuesday night Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2595 into law. Sponsored by Los Angeles Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D), the bill seeks to prevent juvenile court petitions from being filed solely on the basis of a parent’s use or possession of marijuana. Advocates say the state has been too slow in updating its guidance since the legalization of cannabis in 2016.
“In practice, many child welfare agencies have failed to catch up with the law,” Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers wrote in support of the bill. “Agencies continue to file petitions alleging neglect simply because a parent possessed or occasionally used cannabis, even when the parent is giving appropriate, loving care to their child.”
The new law will require the state to instruct social workers to treat a parent’s possession or use of cannabis in the same manner as alcohol or legally prescribed medication. It also mandates that its use alone is not enough to file a dependency court case against a parent.
Two bills the governor has yet to decide aim to keep children out of the foster care system due to economic hardship alone.
Senate Bill 1085, authored by Los Angeles state Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D), clarifies instructions to social workers that children cannot be separated from their families because of the family’s homelessness or financial struggles.
While SB 1085 would not change state laws, it aims to prevent the state’s child welfare agencies from bringing families into the system for reasons that have more to do with poverty than with child maltreatment.
“We want to make it super clear that poverty should never be the sole reason why these children are coming into the jurisdiction of the child welfare system,” said Stephanie Jeffcoat, a community organizer with A New Way of Life Reentry Project, based in Los Angeles. “There have to be more reasons aside from ‘Oh, their refrigerator isn’t filled with food, their cabinets are bare or their phone is broken.’ That should never be a reason for family separation.”
A bill with similar aims, Assembly Bill 2085, would amend the state’s mandated reporting laws to make it more difficult to report parents to child maltreatment hotlines for “general neglect.” The catch-all term can indicate a parent has not provided “adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision” — even when “no physical injury to the child has occurred.”
Assemblymember Chris Holden of Sacramento, a Democrat and the bill’s author, seeks to address “the over-reporting of families of color,” and to reduce the number of unsubstantiated claims made to Child Protective Services.
His bill — supported by a coalition of advocacy groups, including the law firm that represents foster children in Los Angeles County — clarifies that a parent’s economic disadvantage should not trigger general neglect reporting requirements if they do not include a child safety issue. It also encourages mandated reporters such as teachers and therapists to direct families in poverty to supportive services instead of reporting them to the local CPS agency.
Here is a list of other pending bills:
- Assembly Bill 2159 would prohibit courts from denying family reunification services to a parent who is in custody before being convicted of a crime, and require they be given the same rights as parents who were able to afford bail.
- Taking a lead from Los Angeles County, Assembly Bill 2665 would allow five more counties to conduct a pilot project that shields a family’s race, name and other identifying details from social workers when they decide whether to take a child into foster care.
Advocates for “colorblind” removals say the method combats racial bias in child welfare systems. About one half of all Black and Native American children in California are investigated by CPS before they turn 18, and they are three times as likely as white children to be placed in foster care, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.
- Assembly Bill 2466 would prohibit foster care agencies from declining to place a foster child in a home with LGBTQ caregivers, an effort to recruit more lesbian, gay, transgender and queer resource families.
- Senate Bill 107 would make the state a refuge for transgender youth and their families seeking health care. Specifically, the bill would prevent California courts, health care providers and insurers from turning over information about a patient’s gender-affirming medical care to other states.
- Assembly Bill 2663 would expand the Youth Acceptance Project to three additional counties. The program is designed to increase acceptance of LGBTQ children among parents, foster parents, extended family members, social workers and others. The project run by the Oakland-based foster care agency Family Builders aims to keep families together whenever possible and increase the number of safe housing options.