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Foster Kids’ Rights, Suspensions in the OC, LA City Approves Officer Rape Settlement

April 21st, 2016 by Taylor Walker

STRENGTHENING THE FOSTER YOUTH BILL OF RIGHTS TO PROTECT AND EMPOWER KIDS IN THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM

The Foster Youth Bill of Rights, enacted in 2001, says that (among dozens of other rights) foster children have the right to live in a safe and comfortable home, free from abuse, with enough clothes and healthy food, and the ability to visit with and contact siblings, parents, and other family members, and participate in after school and social activities.

Foster kids also have the right to refuse medication—a particularly noteworthy right considering California’s epidemic of doctors over-prescribing psychotropic drugs to foster kids. (For more on that issue, read Karen de Sá’s series, “Drugging Our Kids,” for the San Jose Mercury News.)

But in the 15 years that the law has been in effect, it has shown its weaknesses. Foster kids are sometimes not even aware of their rights, and often, ones that do know their rights don’t report rights violations out of fear that they will be removed from their homes or face retaliation by their caregiver.

A bill sponsored by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Compton) would update and improve on the original Foster Youth Bill of Rights. A working group would be tasked with identifying the rights of kids in the child welfare system, and review the way foster youth are notified about those rights. The bill is sailing through the legislature without opposition. Anna Johnson, of the National Center for Youth Law, says she hopes the working group’s recommendations will look something like this:

- 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.

Glenn Daigon has more on the issue for The Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

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.


AM IN-DEPTH LOOK AT ORANGE COUNTY’S SUSPENSION RATES: MOST DISTRICTS ARE REDUCING SUSPENSIONS, BUT THE OC’S LARGEST DISTRICT IS DOING THE OPPOSITE

Thanks to a statewide push to reduce harsh school discipline, California has seen a 33% drop in out-of-school suspensions between the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 school years.

For the most part, Orange County school districts’ suspension rates lined up with the state trend, according to a Voice of OC analysis of CA Department of Education and UCLA Civil Rights Project data.

Huntington Beach Union High reduced suspensions by 64% during that time period. And Santa Ana Unified, the largest of the OC’s 28 districts, cut suspension rates by 58%.

There were two districts that broke from the pack, however—Anaheim Union High and Tustin Unified—which reported a 203% and 45% spike in suspensions, respectively.

Anaheim’s suspensions rose in every category—weapons, drugs, violence with injury, violence without injury, disruption/defiance, and “other.” Specifically, suspensions for violence with injury jumped from 42 during the 2011-2012 school year, to 684 during the 2013-2014 school year. Willful defiance suspensions increased from 332 to 487. Tustin Unified showed a similar pattern: willful defiance suspensions went from zero during 2011-2012, to 259 during 2013-2014.

Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, and Oakland Unified have recently banned suspensions for willful defiance—a harmful catchall term for most anything that can pass as disruptive behavior, and is used disproportionately on students of color. In 2014, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill banning expulsions for willful defiance for every grade, K-12, and willful defiance suspensions for kids in grades K-3. (We at WLA will be interested to see what that law, which went into effect in 2015, will have on school discipline numbers for the current school year.)

Here’s a clip from Voice of OC’s Thy Vo’s analysis:

It’s unclear why Anaheim and Tustin are going in the opposite direction from most other OC school districts. But we can consider a few factors that come into play.

Anaheim Union High is the only district in the county that saw increases in every category of suspensions. The largest increases were seen in suspensions for violence with injury — from 42 to 684; for drug offenses, which spiked from 74 to 462; and for willful defiance, which went from 332 to 487.

Suspensions increased in every category but weapons in Tustin Unified. The largest jump was in suspensions for willful defiance, which went from zero during the 2011-12 school year to 259 in 2013-14.

The increase in the two districts in willful defiance suspensions — a loose term for acting out in class — is surprising given that they have been dropping rapidly statewide.

Countywide, suspensions decreased in every category, with the 53 percent drop in willful defiance suspensions being the largest. Suspensions for violence with injury was the only category to increase, with 17 percent more suspensions in 2014 than 2011.

The increase was driven by a handful of schools where violent incidents are increasing: Anaheim Union High, Tustin Unified, Brea Olinda Unified, Los Alamitos Unified and La Habra City Elementary.

Nationwide, minority students, English learners and students with disabilities have the highest rates of suspension.

A 2015 Report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project highlighting the “school discipline gap” found that in 2011-12, black students were suspended at the highest rates — 23 percent — followed by disabled students at 18 percent, American Indians at 12 percent, and Latinos and English learners at 11 percent. Meanwhile, 7 percent of white students were suspended that year.

This remains true in Orange County, where Latino and black students tend to be suspended disproportionate to their share of the student body.


LOS ANGELES TO PAY $750,000 TO A WOMAN ALLEGEDLY RAPED BY AN LAPD OFFICER

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $750,000 settlement with a woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted by an LAPD officer while his partner stood as lookout.

In February, the two veteran LAPD officers, James Christopher Nichols, 44, and Luis Gustavo Valenzuela, 43, were charged with raping four women repeatedly between 2008 and 2011. “They’ve disgraced this badge. They’ve disgraced their oaths of office,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said back in February.

Prosecutors say Valenzuela and Nichols used threats of arrest to coerce their victims into compliance. Two other women allegedly raped by the Valenzuela and Nichols have also sued the city, and are each seeking more than $3 million in damages.

The two officers face life in prison, if convicted.

The LA Times’ Emily Alpert Reyes has the story. Here’s a clip:

Valenzuela and Nichols were placed on unpaid leave more than two years ago, after a halting internal investigation that was first launched when one of the women stepped forward. Criminal charges were eventually filed after an elite investigative unit took over the case.

The woman who brought the lawsuit said that in September 2009, Valenzuela and Nichols ordered her into their car as she was walking her dog, then drove the car to a secluded location where Valenzuela sexually assaulted her while Nichols kept a lookout in the front seat.

In the lawsuit, the woman said she later recounted her story to detectives after being arrested and brought to the Hollywood station five years ago. Police repeatedly told her not to hire a lawyer and urged her to be patient, according to her complaint.

The lawsuit alleges the city strung her along “to keep her quiet and avoid getting sued.” The woman hired a lawyer after reading about other lawsuits against the officers, her suit says.

The city agreed two years ago to pay $575,000 to settle one of those other cases, brought by another woman who accused the men of threatening her with jail unless she had sex with them.

Los Angeles faces additional legal challenges tied to the allegations against Nichols and Valenzuela. Two other women recently sued the city over alleged assaults by the officers, each asking more than $3 million in damages.

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Planned Parenthood Sues on Behalf of Foster Kids…Gov. Brown’s Justice Reform Initiative Blocked…Bill to Kill Cash Bail…and CA Child Welfare’s New Ombudsman

February 25th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

PLANNED PARENTHOOD LAWSUIT SEZ PROMESA GROUP HOMES VIOLATE FOSTER TEENS’ REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

Planned Parenthood is suing a chain of Fresno group homes for allegedly punishing female foster children in its care for receiving reproductive health care and obtaining contraceptives. The government-funded Promesa Behavioral Health group homes force the young girls to allow a staff member to watch their ob-gyn exams and to sign away their medical privacy rights. Group home staff members take away privileges (like watching TV, listening to music, and receiving visits with family members) if the girls are found in violation of Promesa’s abstinence policy by having condoms, getting the Depo-Provera contraceptive shot, or showing any other signs of sexual contact.

Promesa has seven group homes in Fresno County, and received a whopping $4.7 million in government funding in 2014.

In the suit filed by Planned Parenthood and three 18-year-olds under Promesa’s care, the reproductive health care provider calls Promesa’s practices “all the more harmful because youth in foster care have a particularly compelling need for access to contraception and regular reproductive health care.”

Foster kids in California are far more likely than their non-child-welfare-involved peers to be pregnant or have children of their own. According to Alliance for Children’s Rights, girls in foster care in LA are 2.5 times more likely to be pregnant by age 19 than girls not involved in the child welfare system. And 50% of 21-year-old young men aging out say they have gotten someone pregnant, compared to 19% of 21-year-old males not in foster care.

One of the plaintiffs says that when Promesa staff found out that she was pregnant at 17, the group home barred her from visits with her mother and first child, and pressured her to get an abortion. She says Promesa staff punished her for refusing the abortion by blocking her from visits with her second child after she gave birth.

Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit seeks an injunction banning Promesa from confiscating contraceptives, forbidding foster youth from seeking reproductive health services, and punishing girls who do not comply with the unlawful policies.

Courthouse News Service’s Elizabeth Warmerdam has the story. Here’s a clip:

Plaintiff L.B. says: “When (she) went to gynecological appointments, Promesa group home staff insisted on staying in the exam room with her, and listening to her entire conversation with the medical provider.”

She says she was punished with restrictions for what she told the medical provider, and that Promesa staff confiscated condoms from her three times while searching her room and told her “she would get in trouble if she had them or had any reason to use them.”

Plaintiff A.Z. says a Promesa staff member insisted on accompanying her into her ob-gyn exam last year, and when A.Z. requested a Depo-Provera contraceptive shot, “the group home staff member told her that she was not allowed to have the shot.”

The complaint continues: “The staff member explained that she did not need the shot because she was not allowed to have sexual contact while living at the group home. The staff member told her that if she did have the shot, she would be punished and get an ‘R.’ A.Z. decided to get the Depo-Provera shot that day anyway. When she told Promesa staff, the response was, ‘Just know you are getting an R.’

“Getting an ‘R’ means that a Promesa resident loses important ‘privileges’ at the group home, including leaving the house, watching television, or listening to music. Sometimes it results in an early bedtime or loss of visitation, including visits with family members.

“On a number of occasions, Promesa staff also tried to force AZ. to let her ob-gyn share confidential medical information with the group home staff. When A.Z. directed her doctor not to fill out forms disclosing to Promesa what happened during her ob-gyn appointment, Promesa staff threatened her with an R if she did not permit her doctor to complete the forms.”


JUDGE BLOCKS CA GOV. JERRY BROWN’S IMPORTANT CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BALLOT INITIATIVE

On Wednesday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang blocked Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed ballot initiative to give judges sole discretion (rather than prosecutors) over whether a child defendant is transferred to adult court, and increase inmates’ access to early release credits. (Read more about the initiative and its implications: here.) The ruling will likely delay the ballot measure until 2018.

The judge ruled in favor of the California District Attorneys Association [CDAA] and Sacramento County resident Anne Marie Schubert, whose lawsuit accused Brown of forgoing a necessary period of public review for one of the amendments, and “cut in line to the front, ahead of other initiatives”. The judge’s ruling blocks California Attorney General Kamala Harris from publishing Brown’s “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016” which would have allowed Brown to begin gathering signatures.

The Associated Press’ Don Thompson has more on the judge’s decision. Here’s a clip:

“The court finds that the attorney general abused her discretion,” Chang said, ruling that the amendments radically change the focus of the original initiative without allowing for necessary public comment.

“What the amendments did was the type of mischief the Legislature had in mind” when it required that amendments to ballot initiatives be related to the original initiative, the judge said.

Friday was the deadline for Harris to act, but Chang agreed with the California District Attorneys Association and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert after they sued over the ballot measure.

The ruling could delay signature-gathering for Brown’s initiative beyond this year and possibly push it to the 2018 ballot.

Chang’s ruling “makes it impossible” for proponents to put the initiative before voters this year, said attorney James Harrison, who argued on behalf of the original proponents who allowed Brown to alter their measure.


NEW PROPOSED LEGISLATION TO STAMP OUT THE USURIOUS CASH BAIL SYSTEM NATIONWIDE

US Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation Wednesday that would end the controversial use of money bail at the federal level, and block access to Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants for states that keep their money bail systems in place. (In 2012, California received the largest Byrne JAG sum: $32 million.)

The No More Money Bail Act of 2016 aims to reform a system which disproportionately affects the poor, and is a key contributor to overcrowding in jails and prisons. More than 60% of jail inmates nationwide are awaiting trial. Most cannot afford to post bail.

In a previous WLA bail-related post, we pointed to an excellent John Oliver segment on the horrors of the cash bail system.

“No one should ever be deprived of their liberty before trial because they are poor–especially when defendants who are alike in every other way are able to purchase their release by cutting a deal with a for-profit bail bondsman,” said executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, announcing the organization’s support of the legislation.

The Pretrial Justice Institute launched a campaign to do away with needless arrests and bookings, and replace money bail with risk-based detention. “Even three days in jail pretrial has been show to make low-level defendants more likely to reoffend,” said Fanno Burdeen.


FORMER FOSTER CHILD APPOINTED FIRST EVER CA FOSTER CARE OMBUDSMAN

The California Department of Social Services has appointed Rochelle Trochtenberg—a former foster youth whose story was featured in Karen de Sá’s powerful investigative series on the over-prescribing of psychiatric medication for foster kids—to be the state’s foster care ombudsman.

Diagnosed with a number of mental illnesses as a kid in an LA County group home, Trochtenberg was put on damaging cocktails of psychiatric medications, some of which included lithium, Depakote, Zyprexa, Haldol and Prozac.

After aging out of the foster care system and leaving the psychotropic drug fog behind, she became a major child welfare advocate, serving on the state’s Child Welfare Council and a group working to end the excessive use of psychotropic medications to treat California foster kids.

Thirty-three-year-old Trochtenberg is the first former foster child to hold the position in California (and possibly the nation). As ombudsman, she will head an office that looks into complaints and child welfare system failures.

Here’s a clip from de Sá’s story for San Jose Mercury News:

“It’s a pleasure when you’re able to appoint the right person to the role at just the right time and Rochelle is that,” said Will Lightbourne, director of the California Department of Social Services. Lightbourne described Trochtenberg as a “balanced, thoughtful person” who will help tackle the ongoing overhaul of California’s residential group homes and a series of new laws designed to reduce the excessive use of psychiatric drugs in foster care. “I just have the greatest regard for her,” Lightbourne said.

For the past eight years, Trochtenberg has worked on foster care, juvenile justice, homelessness, LGBT rights and mental health issues for Humboldt County. She also holds a key leadership post on the statewide group working to reduce psychotropic drug use, and has served for years alongside judicial and political leaders on the state’s Child Welfare Council.

Growing up in the Los Angeles foster care system, Trochtenberg was diagnosed with a slew of mental illnesses and prescribed multiple overlapping drugs that caused serious health problems. Today, off medications and suffering from none of the illnesses she was told she had in foster care, she holds a master’s degree in social work and is poised to begin her four-year state post on March 28, with an $81,312 annual salary and a staff of 15.

Suddenly, Trochtenberg finds herself packing up to move from Eureka to Sacramento — a surprise twist in her life. “It’s given me this opportunity to pause and reflect,” she said. “If 10 years ago somebody said you’re going to be the foster care ombudswoman, I would have laughed in their face. I’m really just humbled by the opportunity.”

California is one of more than 20 states with similar ombudsman posts, but it was among the first, establishing the office in 1998 following a push by the advocacy group California Youth Connection. The office is responsible for educating foster youth about their rights and how to report violations. It also investigates and resolves individual complaints, summarizing them in reports to the Legislature.

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OVER-CRIMINALIZATION: Why Are LA’s Foster Kids More Likely to Be Charged With Crimes?

February 10th, 2016 by witnessla


THE OVER-CRIMINALIZATION OF LA’S FOSTER CHILDREN

by Carrie Wang and Rachel Kohn

Monserrat Zarza was 15-years-old when she was assigned to a group home six months after entering the Los Angeles County foster care system. Group homes provide a placement option for hard-to-place children “with significant emotional or behavioral problems,” according to the state of California.

Being in an environment with several dozen other troubled kids was not what Zarza expected when she gathered the courage to pick up her phone and ask for help after a decade of physical and emotional abuse by her mother. She was hoping for a real family home. The idea of a group home scared her.

When Zarza first entered the system, she did live with a foster family for six months. During that period, Zarza’s biological mother told her that she wanted to commit suicide because of the investigation and scrutiny that Zarza had put her through. In reaction to her mother’s accusations and threats, Zarza said she began to abuse drugs to cope with all the trauma and stress she was feeling. That’s why she was discharged from her foster family and reassigned to the Penny Lane Group Home in North Hills, California, after social workers told her they could not find her another foster home.

Now 20, Zarza has tried to make the most of her life since leaving her mother. At Penny Lane, she enrolled in a program to sober up. She said she believed in the system — until one day the group home staff caught her roommate using drugs and called the police. Zarza stood and watched as police officers arrested her friend. She never saw the girl again.


ARRESTS AS BEHAVIOR CONTROL

The use of arrests to control the behavior of foster youth is reportedly an all-too-common practice in many group homes. Denise C. Herz, associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles, has analyzed data on crossover youth in Los Angeles County since 2007. (Crossover youth is a term for children who are victims of abuse or neglect who also enter the juvenile justice system.)

In her most recent report, released in May 2015, Herz found that 32 percent of the foster youth who were arrested were living in group homes. She also found in the 15-month study that African-American kids were greatly overrepresented among the crossover kids. Plus 36.6 percent of the crossover population were girls, as opposed to 20 percent in the general juvenile justice population.

Zarza said Herz’s study matched her experience. “When we had a problem, they [the staff in the group home] were supposed to help us get better.” Instead, when it came to her friend, she said, “they just threw the cops at her the first time they caught her using. They should have reached out to her drug counselor first. They should have confiscated the drugs and figured out another way instead of calling the police.”

Juvenile public defender Maureen Pacheco, who has been working with the juvenile justice system for 37 years, agreed that social workers in group homes tend to report youth too easily.

“Social workers see the delinquency court having this power to detain kids. It’s almost like a mother turning to a father and saying, ‘Punish him,’” Pacheco said. “So they look at the delinquency system as having the power to control these kids. And the control is they get locked up. They think of that as a traditional method of disciplining the kids.”

As an example, Pacheco pointed to a client whom we’ll call Robert to protect his anonymity. Robert lived in a large group home for seven years, she said, dealing with such problems as being adopted and unadopted multiple times. Recently, after tracking down his birth mother, Robert and his sister escaped from their group home to meet her. The experience has unleashed a flood of emotional issues for him.

Once during lunch, during an argument with a social worker, he mouthed off angrily, saying “I’m going to kill you” as he had a wrench in his hand. The social worker called the police, and Robert was put on probation for 17 months, and is still on probation today.

Pacheco said the boy had never been known to be violent, but had often expressed his distress using empty threats. “To me that means this is a kid who is expressing his anger, but he is not somebody who is going to be a danger,” she said. “But because they [the group home staff] have liability for other people in the group home, they almost have to overreact in order to not have a situation where other kids get hurt. It is very discouraging because the liability has become their number one concern, not the well-being of the kids,” she said.

“With my two teenage sons, there were times when they would say horrible things to each other and make threats to each other. In a private home you are not likely to say, ‘I am going to call the police and have you arrested.’ You realize it is normal teenager behavior,” said Pacheco.


‘THE SYSTEM DOESN’T PARENT’

Attorney Barbara Duey agrees with Pacheco. Duey, who is an attorney and crossover director for the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, said that because social workers often do not have the patience, time or training to adequately assess a kid’s emotional reaction in a high-stress situation, their first response is to pick up the phone and call the police when kids act out, as kids often do.

“The system doesn’t parent, the system just reacts,” she said.

“When I was growing up at home with my sister, we shared a bathroom. We got in fights all the time. If I picked up my hairbrush and threw it at her, and shattered the glass, I’m going to get grounded by my parents,” she said. “However, our kids get arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and vandalism if that same thing happens in a group home setting.”

According to Duey, the overreaction continues after police are called. When a foster youth is arrested while in the group home system, the offense with which he or she is charged is likely to be more serious than if the child is arrested outside the system. For example, the hairbrush toss could be categorized as assault with a deadly weapon. The youth in question would be taken to juvenile hall and the case would go to the District Attorney’s office.

“The next thing you know, they are in court facing felonies. It happens all the time,” Duey said.


SOCIAL WORKERS AREN’T FAMILY

One of the problems contributing to the overcriminalization of foster children, experts say, is the fact that social workers often have high caseloads and thus do not make good parents.

Zarza was rushed into a group home because her social worker was going to leave town in a week. The social worker promised Zarza she would only stay in the group home for at most three months, after which she would find Zarza another foster home.

“I was really scared at the beginning. I thought something bad was going to happen to me and I kept waiting for her to come back.” But the social worker did not return. “I ended up staying there for 1½ years,” Zarza said.

When the social workers in her group home were overwhelmed, they would often take out their frustration on her and other girls, according to Zarza.

One time, she said, when she asked one social worker for keys to open a closet of clean clothes because she planned to take a shower, the worker asked her to wait. When Zarza came back to ask a third time, the worker told her that she was a “failure.” That’s why Zarza was in a group home, the social worker said, and that was why she would be a loser for the rest of her life like all the other girls.

“I was really hurt because I wasn’t expecting to get insulted like that when I simply asked to get my belongings to take a shower,” Zarza said.

The Los Angeles Department of Family and Children’s Services is short on foster families, so when a family cannot be found for a child, many reportedly wind up in situations similar to Zarza’s.

Judge Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court who was recently appointed director of Los Angeles County’s new Office of Child Protection, said the group home is the least preferred placement for children and youths because it is an unnatural setting.

“We see that kids in group homes cross over from child welfare to juvenile justice at a higher rate. We see that kids in group homes have lower education outcomes. We see that a higher number of the kids in group homes are receiving psychiatric medication,” he said.

According to Zarza, when she was in a group home, there were only four social workers in charge of 45 girls. The girls had no privacy and were only allowed to close their dorm doors for five minutes when they were changing. Some girls used this time as an excuse to pick fights. Zarza never adjusted to this living situation.

“I could never live a normal life like any other kid in my age,” she said.

Zarza had no one to turn to when she had problems within the group home. For over a year she and her friends filed grievance complaints but never heard back from anyone.

“It’s not like somebody’s there in your corner as your advocate like a parent would be,” Pacheco said.


‘WE ARE FAILING THEM’

The situation Zarza described is not an individual occurrence; it is a problem with the system, according to Pacheco.

“The delinquency system is treated as a dumping ground by the foster care system,” she said. “Social workers use the juvenile justice system when they are frustrated by kids’ noncompliance with the plan. They see the juvenile system as a place where they can lock the kid up. It is a tremendous problem.

“We are failing them,” Pacheco said.

Youth advocates hope that California’s Assembly Bill 403, passed last year, will help ensure that foster youths like Zarza are placed in a healthy living environment. The legislation, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, will replace group homes with short-term residential facilities designed to provide temporary support to kids with identified needs before returning them to a “family setting.”

During his time leading the Los Angeles Juvenile Court and as supervising judge of the Juvenile Dependency Court, Judge Nash wanted to find a way to ensure that the foster care system accurately focused on kids’ individual needs and that youths were not placed into group homes as a last resort. So he and his colleagues implemented a protocol in 2014 to improve the group home system.

“It [the protocol] says every time the agency wants to place a child in a group home, we need to get a report that tells us why a group home and why this group home,” said Nash. “What’s the specific case plan for the child in this group home? How long is it contemplated that this child will be in this group home?”

Nash admits it will take a while to see solid results from AB 403 and his group home protocol, but he is confident that both will ultimately help foster youths.

Pacheco said she would also like to see some revisions in the role of social workers who help and care for foster youths.

“Having a mentor who understands the system and helps them navigate the system” is important, she said. “Nobody is acting as a parent for the kids so having somebody who can at least advocate for them would be helpful.”

Zarza too is trying to make changes in the system. With this goal in mind, she has joined California Youth Connection to be an advocate for foster youths. She will age out of the system in a year, at 21, and said she wants to do all she can so that other youths in the system won’t experience the same pain she went through.

“I just want my past be my past, my present be present, and my future be different,” Zarza said.


This story is the first in a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.


The photos of Monserrat Zarza are courtesy of her personal collection.

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Pregnant and Parenting Foster Kids, Housing Homeless Vets, and a Prison Acting Class

January 22nd, 2016 by Taylor Walker

REPORT LOOKS AT CHALLENGES FACED BY FOSTER KIDS WHO ARE PREGNANT OR PARENTS

A study by First Place For Youth compares the outcomes of transition-aged foster youth who are pregnant or parenting with non-parent foster kids.

First Place for Youth is a non-profit that helps foster kids aging out of the system with housing and other services in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties.

The study, which used data from teens and young adults within the program, and found that the participants who were parents were less likely to have a job or high school diploma (or GED), and the parents had a harder time attending higher education or pursuing a career than the non-parents.

And foster kids in California are far more likely than their non-child-welfare-involved peers to be pregnant or have children of their own. According to Alliance for Children’s Rights, girls in foster care in LA are 2.5 times more likely to be pregnant by age 19 than girls not involved in the child welfare system. And 50% of 21-year-old young men aging out say they have gotten someone pregnant, compared to 19% of 21-year-old males not in foster care.

The report recommends boosting access to affordable child care, providing more parenting services to foster youth (for both moms and dads), developing a pregnancy prevention strategy, and providing extra income for foster kids who are working and going to school while raising kids.

The report also recommends that counties opt-in on CA Senate Bill 1252 to extend eligibility to age 25 for a transitional housing program, pointing out that parenting foster youth need far more support adjusting to independent adult life than non-parenting foster kids.

The study was funded by the Butler Family Fund, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Hedge Funds Care and Kaiser Foundation Hospital Fund.


US SENATE APPROVES $35 MILLION TO HOUSE LA’S HOMELESS VETERANS

On Wednesday, the US Senate voted unanimously to fund $35 million in construction work on a decrepit Department of Veterans Affairs building in Westwood to house homeless vets.

The decision is an important one, as there is a serious shortage of beds for the more than 4,000 homeless military veterans living in Los Angeles County.

If the House of Representatives approves the bill, the $35 million would provide seismic retrofitting for a portion of the historic VA campus, which has been underutilized due to its current dilapidated condition. The Senate-approved renovation will quickly provide housing for 65 veterans in need.

If completed, the a draft plan for the whole campus would create permanent housing for 900 vets and traditional housing for 700 more.

KPCC’s John Ismay has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

With more homeless veterans than any other city in the U.S., Los Angeles has been scrambling for ways to house those in need. Last year, under a settlement agreement, the V.A. agreed to repurpose the campus to help house homeless veterans.

Veterans had sued the V.A., claiming misuse of the property, which was donated to the federal government to serve those who served in the military. Instead, large sections of the campus were leased out to businesses and nonprofits who had nothing to do with veterans.

[SNIP]

The $35 million would provide earthquake retrofits to a building that could house about 65 veterans–making the price tag more than a half million dollars per bed.

Seems steep–and the V.A. has acknowledged that demolishing the historic buildings that litter the campus and erecting new ones would be much cheaper. But the process for doing so is much slower, particularly since the government believes the existing buildings have historical value.

“The campus has a number of beautiful old buildings, that are outdated and underutilized,” said Milo Peinemann of New Directions, a non-profit organization that works to house homeless veterans.


ACTING CLASS IN LANCASTER PRISON GIVES INMATES NEW HOPE, JOB SKILLS, AND AN OUTLET

Inmates at a California State Prison in Lancaster learn interpersonal skills and how to manage stress through meditation and acting classes led by teachers and mentors from the Strindberg Laboratory.

People Magazine’s Tiare Dunlap has more on the program. Here’s a clip:

The Strindberg Laboratory currently employs three acting teachers who are graduates of its programs in jails and homeless shelters – a number the directors say will grow to at least 10 within the year.

Teacher Tony Cedeno was serving a three-year sentence in Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles when he met Bierman and Pakarinen, who he calls “my angels from God.”

“When I met them, I was fully involved in the gangs,” Cedeno, 52, tells PEOPLE. “I came out one morning of their drama class to give notes to somebody and I wound up staying.”

Cedeno, formerly known as “Teardop,” was coping with HIV positive status and substance abuse issues when he became involved with the program. He says he “never in a million years” could have imagined acting would change the course of his life.

“I just gave it a chance,” he recalls. “I played my mother in our first show and it helped me to process a lot of feelings I was harboring and gave me a chance to look at the part I played as a son rather than what my mother had done to me.”

Most of the plays the program puts on are written or adapted by the actors themselves. This allows for a greater creative expression and helps with two practical concerns.

“It’s easier because if you do a play you have to learn lines,” Bierman says. “A lot of the guys, especially if they’re dealing with addiction, can’t remember anything.”

Cedeno contacted the couple one day after being released from jail. After participating in productions on the outside, Cedeno became a Strindberg Laboratory teacher. He now leads acting workshops at Project Alofa, a Long Beach, California, organization that assists formerly incarcerated individuals and the LGBTQ community – a role he takes extremely seriously.

“I released my tension in the theater and that’s what I do today,” he says. “I’m still clean and sober going on three years thanks to them.”

“I work extra hours because it’s like therapy for me,” he continues. “After getting shot, getting stabbed, getting thrown off of bridges, getting tied up in handcuffs, being the victim of home invasions, these people make me feel safe. I feel a safety, I feel like they’re teaching me. They’re teaching me how to be human again.”

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Teen Pregnancy Prevention, Million$ for Violence Prevention in Oakland, “Black Lives Matter” Is Top 2015 Story…and More

December 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

THE IMPORTANCE OF INCLUDING TEEN PREGNANCY PREVENTION STRATEGIES IN THE TOOLBOX FOR PREVENTING ABUSE AND NEGLECT

Teen pregnancy prevention services are missing from a recently released draft list of recommendations from a national commission created to develop strategies for reducing abuse and neglect-related deaths of children, according to Marie Cohen, a former social worker and policy researcher.

Cohen says the Commission for the Elimination of Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities should recommend Congress gather data on how many of these fatalities involve kids born to teen parents, or born to parents who started having children when they were teenagers. Cohen also calls on the commission to recommend all teens—especially kids involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice system and at high risk for pregnancy—have full access to all contraception options, as well as counseling and education.

Girls in foster care in Los Angeles are 2.5 times more likely to be pregnant by age 19 than girls not involved in the child welfare system, according to statistics gathered by Alliance for Children’s Rights.

And in LA County, kids with teen mothers involved with the child welfare system experienced a rate of abuse and neglect, themselves, two to three times higher than kids born to teen moms with no DCFS-involvement, according to a 2013 report funded by the Hilton Foundation.

Second or subsequent infants born to mothers younger than 17 years old, were 11 times more likely to be murdered than firstborns from mothers who were over the age of 25, according to a national study on infant deaths between 1983-1991.

Here’s a clip from Cohen’s op-ed for the Chronicle of Social Change:

As National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy co-founder Sarah Brown recently pointed out, groups that focus on child and family well-being rarely propose interventions that begin before conception of a child. CECANF could begin to rectify this omission by including teen pregnancy prevention in its recommendations for reducing child abuse and neglect fatalities.

In her testimony before CECANF, Angela Diaz, director of New York’s Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, discussed the connection between teenage parenthood and child maltreatment fatalities. In serving for many years on a child fatality review panel, she noticed that in many of these cases, the mother began childbearing in adolescence, and had more closely spaced children thereafter.

Dr. Diaz cited a national study of deaths of infants born between 1983 and 1991, which showed that “childbearing at an early age was strongly associated with infant homicide, particularly if the mother had given birth previously.”

A second or subsequent infant born to a mother younger than 17 years old was 11 times more likely to be a homicide victim than the first child of a mother 25 or older. A second or subsequent infant born to a mother age 17 to 19 was over nine times more likely to be a homicide victim.

[SNIP]

Even without knowing the proportion of child maltreatment deaths occurring to children of teen mothers, we already know that teen motherhood is a risk factor for child abuse and neglect. CECANF should recommend increased emphasis on teen pregnancy prevention, especially for young women in high poverty areas and those in foster care.

The Commission should recommend that all teens, especially those at higher risk of pregnancy, have access to contraceptive methods and education. Clinics in low income areas and those serving youth in foster care and juvenile justice should provide the full array of contraceptive options including the long-lasting methods that are most effective, along with education and counseling.

Special attention should be devoted to preventing a second birth to a teenage mother by ensuring that she is provided with a contraceptive method at the time of the first birth. The federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which has been under attack in Congress, should be fully funded or expanded.


A UNIQUE VOTER-APPROVED TAX TO BOOST PUBLIC SAFETY IN OAKLAND MEANS MILLIONS IN FUNDING FOR INNOVATIVE RESTORATIVE JUSTICE AND VIOLENCE PREVENTION EFFORTS

Two dozen Oakland non-profits and public organizations will split $6.37 million in funding to reduce violence at the community level, thanks to Oakland’s Measure Z, a parcel tax and parking surcharge meant to boost public safety efforts.

Among the non-profits and organizations the city’s Human Services Department chose to fund were Youth Alive!, which connects with hospitalized kids and teens who have been shot or stabbed, or who have just been released from lock-up, to prevent retaliation and reoffending.

Youth Alive! was awarded $1 million, which was the largest grant, for a collaborative effort with Oakland California Youth Outreach to provide conflict mediation in neighborhoods prone to violence.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Rachel Swan has the story. Here’s a clip:

Staff from the city’s Human Services Department — which has an arm called Oakland Unite that manages public safety funds — recommended awarding 30 grants in all, allocating the money to 24 nonprofit and public agencies, out of 44 that applied. The City Council approved those awards Tuesday.

Clients from several of the organizations that received funding gave emotional speeches at the council meeting, highlighting the urgency of Measure Z.

“I just got out of prison two weeks ago,” said Tommy Robinson, who had come to advocate for Oakland California Youth Outreach.

Robinson said he’d spent more than a decade behind bars, and the last six years in solitary confinement.

“It was tough going from being isolated to being around people again,” Robinson said, adding that the group had helped him put together a resume and readjust to the outside world.

“Welcome home,” said council President Lynette McElhaney, her voice quavering.


THE CRIME REPORT SURVEY: READERS’ TOP TEN STORIES OF 2015

According to a survey conducted by the Crime Report, the “Black Lives Matter” movement was the most significant criminal justice-related news story of 2015. Among the other topics and developments that made the top 10 list were viral cell phone and body cam videos of police confrontations, sentencing reform, and a focus on jails.

Here’s how it opens (head over to the Crime Report to read the full list):

Judging by news reports, Americans were experiencing more fear and insecurity in the closing months of 2015 than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. Last week’s massacre in San Bernardino and the earlier shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs reignited long-festering debates on gun control and domestic terrorism.

Nevertheless, in our fifth annual survey of the most significant criminal justice news stories and developments, TCR readers looked beyond those tragedies to focus on the injustices experienced daily by our most marginalized citizens at the hands of the U.S. justice system—and the network of civic activist groups that has emerged in response.

In choosing the growing political profile of Black Lives Matter and related organizations as the major development of 2015, readers also appeared to signal their faith and optimism in the ability of American civil society to drive change.

“(Black Lives Matter) brought national attention to issues of police brutality in the U.S.,” said one TCR reader who requested anonymity. “And they have continued to fight to keep this subject in the spotlight.”

Although the San Bernardino event occurred after we posted our nominations last week, that didn’t mean the incidents of mass killings which have plagued America during a violent year—such as the June 17 massacre of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston, SC and the shooting spree in Colorado Springs that left four dead (including the shooter) and nine injured on November 27—were ignored.

The troubling phenomenon of domestic terrorism—targeted attacks that have been tied at least in part to ideological hatreds or racial bias—came in at fifth place on TCR’s “Top Ten” List.

Nevertheless, by an overwhelming consensus, the most important developments were those that represented seedbeds for change.

And we think that’s significant. TCR readers, of course, are among the country’s most informed audience when it comes to criminal justice. Many of you are deeply involved in the nuts and bolts of the system, as academics, practitioners, advocates and journalists (just to name a few categories).


JUDGE OVERTURNS DEATH SENTENCE, SAYS PROSECUTOR CAN’T TELL DELIBERATING JURY THAT THE BIBLE SAYS MURDERERS MUST BE PUT TO DEATH

A US District Judge has overturned the death sentence of Rudolph Roybal, finding “egregious misconduct” from the prosecutor, who told the jury during the penalty phase of Roybal’s trial that the Bible calls for murderers to be put to death.

While there is little doubt that Roybal did murder a 65-year-old Oceanside woman after she and her husband fired him for doing yard work too slowly, Judge Jeffrey Miller said the prosecutor’s invalid argument encouraged a conflicted jury to choose a death sentence “because it was God’s will, and not that the imposition of the death penalty complied with California and federal law.”

The San Diego Union Tribune’s Kristina Davis has the story. Here are some clips:

“The prosecutor’s improper argument presented an intolerable danger that the jury minimized its role as fact finder and encouraged jurors to vote for death because it was God’s will, and not that the imposition of the death penalty complied with California and federal law,” Miller wrote in a 226-page opinion granting Roybal’s appeal. The opinion was filed last week.

The judge also chastised Roybal’s defense attorneys, ruling they provided ineffective counsel by not objecting to the prosecutor’s inappropriate closing remarks.

“The failure of defense counsel to object to such egregious misconduct and secure an admonition deprived defendant of the fundamental fairness of a death penalty proceeding free from foul prosecutorial blows,” Miller said.

[SNIP]

Alex Simpson, a professor at California Western School of Law, said the issue is less about the Bible than the prosecutor asking the jury to make a decision based on something other than the evidence presented in the case.

“It’s an appeal to an authority or other evidence that shouldn’t be considered by the jury,” Simpson said in an interview. “In reality, the only thing a jury should do is consider what are the facts and how do the facts inform my decision to vote one way or the other.”

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Head of LA’s New Office of Child Protection Faces Huge Challenges With Little Authority (But He Can’t Wait to Start) – by Gary Cohn

December 7th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


LA’S FAMOUSLY REFORM-MINDED JUVENILE JUDGE TAKES ON FOSTER CARE 

But was he given enough authority to get the job done?

by Gary Cohn


Michael Nash’s 30-year career as a jurist has mostly been focused
on trying to make life better for Los Angeles County’s children. He is widely credited by lawyers, child advocates and other judges as having measurably improved the juvenile courts in Los Angeles, where he spent two decades serving alternately as the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court and supervising judge of the Juvenile Dependency Court.

The latter oversees the fate of Los Angeles foster children.

California’s massive foster care system is the largest in the nation, with 62,097 in foster care as of 2014. (To give you a reference point, New York, which has the next largest system, has 25,397). With 20,651 kids in care, sprawling and complicated Los Angeles County has 30 percent of the state’s foster youth, making it the largest municipal system in the United States, and — after 18 different directors have cycled through LA’s agency in 26 years — it is arguably America’s most chronically troubled.

Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that, during his years on the bench, many of Mike Nash’s efforts and accomplishments have been focused on LA’s foster children:

He promoted major advances in treating crossover youth, kids who have contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. (Los Angeles County is also home to the nation’s largest juvenile justice system.)

To this end, Nash oversaw the creation of Los Angeles’ first juvenile mental health court and first juvenile drug court. In 1998, he helped launch Adoption Saturday in Los Angeles. Since then, about 10,000 foster children have had their adoptions completed in Saturday court hearings. And, in 2014, he managed to open the notoriously secretive Child Dependency Courts to the press.

Now at age 67, the reform-minded Nash is about to embark on a new challenge relating to LA’s foster kids: Early next year, he will become the first director of Los Angeles County’s new Office of Child Protection.

The job was created by the LA County Board of Supervisors at the recommendation of a blue-ribbon commission empaneled by the supervisors in the wake of the horrific killing of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. The boy had been seen multiple times by foster care workers and county sheriff’s deputies before he was essentially tortured to death by his mother and her boyfriend.

After its formation, the commission declared the county’s foster care system to be in a state of emergency requiring a fundamental transformation of the current child protection system.

First on its laundry list of changes urgently needed, the commission recommended that a new entity, the Office of Child Protection, be created to ensure an integrated approach to child protection.

“It is critical that one entity be responsible and accountable for the well-being of the child as a whole and that this entity have no other competing responsibilities,” the commission wrote.

As the OCP’s first director, this means that Nash will, in effect, be in charge of finding a way to make sure the county’s neglected and abused children are kept safe.

Gary Cohn talked to Nash about the priorities and challenges of his new job.



THE NATURE OF THE TASK

Gary Cohn: First of all, just to set the stage, would you describe your new position and why you accepted such a huge, and some say, impossible job? You were, after all, retired for not quite a year.

Michael Nash: This is potentially an opportunity to see if we can improve the way our system here in Los Angeles works with kids and families. It’s a big challenge because it’s a new entity. How it works is not that clearly defined at this point in time.

Cohn: At one point, your new job was known unofficially as “child welfare czar,” with the ability to affect budgets and hire personnel, but the job description changed, and now it doesn’t include anywhere near as much authority. How big an obstacle does that present?

Nash: There’s no authority, OK? The mission is so large that it’s not that clearly defined. So, on the one hand, I expect I will be advising the Board of Supervisors. On the other hand. I expect that I’ll have an opportunity to bring folks together and work on specific issues and see if we can improve how things function. Because there’s no specific authority it’s like walking a tightrope in a way, a real balancing act.

Cohn: Without that specific authority, what you can accomplish is sort of up to your persuasiveness?

Nash: That’s the uniqueness of the challenge and quite frankly I’m crazy enough where that appeals to me.

Cohn: The Board of Supervisors has set certain priorities for your position, putting a big emphasis on prevention, increased transparency in the system and creating a strategic, child-centered plan that is data driven, informed by best practices and that connects all agencies in the county and sets forth measureable goals. But the main emphasis is on keeping children safe. How do you do that?

Nash: We assess the risk that children face in given situations. That’s still an issue and how we coordinate the actions of not only, the Department of Children and Family Services, but other entities — whether it’s law enforcement, the education system, or the health system. We really have to figure out what piece each of those entities own, and how to better coordinate their efforts so that kids don’t fall through the cracks and end up dead.



TO REMOVE OR NOT TO REMOVE

Cohn: How do you strike the proper balance in deciding whether to keep kids in their homes or pull them out?

Nash: You want to have an assessment tool in place that is properly utilized by the different folks that touch these families. At the end of the day, we can’t guarantee that nobody is going to get hurt, but certainly with a good tool, with proper training, proper oversight, proper evaluation, I think we can do a better job of minimizing the risk.

Nothing in life is absolute, but when we see these situations come up again and again, you go, “Hey, is there a better way to do things?” I think that’s why the blue-ribbon commission was formed in the first place, because you had a child who died, a child that the system had touched, that different entities had touched, and the child ended up dead. So that’s an issue that the Office of Child Protection ought to be addressing.

Cohn: You’ve been pretty outspoken about efforts to try and keep families together?

Nash: The law requires that we make every effort to keep families together if we can do so safely — key word being safely. So, it’s about striking that balance. How do we do that, OK? Some people say, “Well, when we keep families together, we ignore safety.” Other folks say we don’t make the appropriate efforts to keep [families] together, we just remove the kids.

Again, it’s about choosing the appropriate balance. There are kids who need to be removed and there are kids who could stay home if the appropriate services were offered. In court, whenever we remove a kid, the question we should be asking before we do that is: Are there any services that would allow this child to safely remain home?

We have to ask that question in every single case and get a good answer. Now in many of the cases, the answer is easy. What’s going on [in the home] is just so awful that you can’t keep the kid there. But there are lots of cases that fall within a grey area, and we really need to give those cases the appropriate consideration. That’s specifically what the law requires, both federal law and state law.

At the end of the day I don’t know if we’ve ever achieved the appropriate balance. That has been an ongoing issue in child protection everywhere, not just here in Los Angeles.

Cohn: I understand that Los Angeles, as well as other jurisdictions across the country, is increasingly using child protective analytics to help make decisions about the best interests of children — when to leave them in their homes and when to remove them. Can you explain how you plan to use analytics moving forward?

Nash: Analytics is basically the use of data to predict future actions. When we talk about protective analytics in the realm of child welfare, [we are asking if you] can look at the data that exists and predict whether or not the risk to this child is great. You can use it in a lot of different ways. One is to inform the decision of social workers to remove or not to remove. I was just on a call yesterday where Wisconsin is trying to determine when families leave the system, what families are at risk of coming back into the system. They call that re-entry.

Wisconsin has a project where they’re using analytics to determine that. It’s relatively new so they don’t have any data yet to say whether it works. Other jurisdictions around the country are using analytics similar to the way we want to use it here. But, once again, it’s pretty new and so at least from the five or six jurisdictions that I heard from yesterday, they really don’t have any meaningful data yet as to whether or not it works.

Cohn: The idea of using it here would be to help make decisions of what kind of risks the child is facing and whether they are enough to necessitate removing them from the home?

Nash: Yes and DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] is currently is working on a tool using analytics. I expect in the near future I’ll be briefed on that, and then determine to what extent the Office of Child Protection needs to be involved in that process.



BORROWING GOOD IDEAS

Cohn: There’s been a lot of talk about the increasing number of kids going into the foster care system, and the problems with recruiting adequate foster families lately…

Nash: Apparently it’s a problem, yes.

Cohn: Is that something you’ll be working on?

Nash: Well it’s something that was a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report so … once again, I’m in the process of doing my due diligence to find out where actually LA County is in this process, and to what extent can the Office of Child Protection be involved in that particular issue.

I’ll be spending my time this next month, and surely the beginning stages of my term, looking at a lot of different data, a lot of different processes to see where we need to go from here. Of course there’s nothing that will occur without the approval of the board. I’m not an independent entity in this regard. I work with the Board of Supervisors, so any thoughts that I have will be vetted with them and then we’ll move from there.
Cohn: Are there other municipalities that you look to because they’re doing things that you admire?

Nash: Well the good thing is, in my previous job I did a lot of national work, and so I know folks all over the country. One of the things that we’ve always done is steal from each other, when there’s something that somebody else is doing well. For example, here in Los Angeles back in the late ‘90s, we developed an adoption project which led to the Adoption Saturday program, which was very popular. Other jurisdictions around the country saw how popular it was, and they started doing the same thing.

We now have National Adoption Day where, on one day, every state in the union that has jurisdictions that can complete adoptions of kids from foster care, to the tune of thousands of adoptions, and it’s pretty cool. So that’s something we started that others have copied. By the same token, there are things we’ve copied from others. For example, when I was with the court, we had another program where we celebrated reunification. I wish it was my idea, but I stole it from a friend in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cohn: Can you explain how it works?

Nash: We had a date where we celebrated the families that reunified, which is just as important as adoptions, if not more important. What we want to do in the child welfare system is make sure that kids leave the system through families. Our number one preference is they leave the system in their own family. If we can’t do that, then the next priority is adoption.

Cohn: Are there additional programs and protocols that other jurisdictions are using that you admire and are thinking of bringing to Los Angeles?

Nash: I want to know what tools others are using on risk assessment. Is there something out there that we need to look at that perhaps we can adopt for our use here?

Another big issue that everybody is talking about is the trauma-informed system. Every child who comes into our system has suffered trauma. Every one. One hundred percent. They’ve been injured by someone close to them, then simply by coming into the system they’re traumatized.

And we know that trauma affects the bodies, the minds and the spirits of children. It prevents them from developing to their full potential. So everybody recognizes that we need to treat that problem. It certainly is being talked about here in Los Angeles. So the question is how do we assess the trauma when we bring these kids into the system. And how do we treat it? Are there jurisdictions that are doing that successfully, and achieving positive outcomes for kids? That’s something else that we’ll be looking at.

Cohn: You sound excited to jump back into it. Maybe “excited” is the wrong word…

Nash: You know, it’s probably as good a word as any. I’ve always been passionate about this work.


CROSSOVER KIDS, GROUP HOMES & OTHER HIGH PRIORITIES

Cohn: What about the particular problems of crossover youth — children who are in both the child protective and juvenile justice systems?

Nash: It’s an important issue because every child who is a victim of abuse and neglect is at high risk of crossing over into the juvenile justice system, and frequently they do. The question is how you create communication and coordination between the two systems so that somehow you can achieve a decent outcome for those kids.

We know that kids who come into the child welfare system are at risk of crossing over. And we also know that the child welfare side has never been operating on full cylinders, right? There are lots of issues with the system that probably contribute to them crossing over. We not only have a legal obligation to give these kids attention, we have a moral obligation to them.

We’ve done a pretty good job of bringing the two systems together in Los Angeles. Our challenge was, and still is, to figure out the best way to serve these kids.

Cohn: There’ve been a number of troubling stories in the media about two DCFS entities called the Youth Welcome Center and the Child Welcome Center. Can you explain to our readers what purpose those centers serve, and what our concerns ought to be?

Nash: We used to have a place called MacLaren Children’s Center, a shelter in El Monte that was designed to be a short-term shelter where we placed kids. Sadly, over the years it developed into a long-term placement for hard-to-place kids without appropriate services attached to it. It became a dumping ground for kids, and a dumping ground for social workers. It closed in 2003. The problem is that the system has not come up with a better alternative. For a while, the numbers of kids in the system were going down, but in the last five years the numbers have gone up significantly.

So where do we put these kids? There aren’t enough short-term foster homes or long-term foster homes, for that matter, and [while waiting for placement] kids were spending nights or days at DCFS offices. As a response, the county developed these “welcome centers,” which are really nothing more than a stopgap measure. There needs to be a better long-term solution — that includes, of course, recruitment of emergency foster homes, but I don’t know if that, in itself, is the answer.

Cohn: California passed legislation this year that is intended to comprehensively reform placement and treatment options for children in foster care. The legislation, AB 403, signed into law in September, is supposed to make sure that youth in foster care have their physical, emotional and mental health needs met and ensure they grow up in permanent and supportive homes. Are you optimistic about this legislation?

Nash: It could completely transform the way the systems work. It’s actually exciting. It’s going to be very difficult for the state and the counties to implement it in the next year, but it’ll bring about significant changes. It requires upfront assessments of kids… It changes the way we recruit and license foster homes, and it changes the way we license group homes.

Cohn: You’re about to embark on an effort to fix a troubled and deeply flawed child protection system in Los Angeles. Now that we’ve talked about some of the things on your to-do list, what do you hope to work on first?

Nash: [The priorities] will be determined by the Board [of Supervisors] based on the discussions that we have with them. That aside, I do think this issue of risk assessment is a big issue — how we assess risk, how we coordinate the efforts of all the different agencies that touch families. It’s one that I will be looking at and potentially advocating that we move forward in that area.

When you think of the different aspects of it, it’s as broad as you want to make it. Obviously with limited staff and time and resources, we really have to figure out what the priorities are going to be. I used to say I wish I could just wave my magic wand and fix everything but somehow my magic wand never worked very well. You can only hope that when you leave, you leave it better than you found it.

Cohn: This hardly sounds like a quick fix or one-year job that you’re taking on. Any thoughts on how long you’d like to stay in this new job?

Nash: Well, number one, as long as I’m healthy. Number two, as long as I’m productive; number three, as long as my bosses, the Board of Supervisors, think I’m productive. I don’t have a set time frame at this point. I’ve already flunked retirement once. It’s a unique opportunity and maybe, despite my better judgment, it was too good to pass up. Too unique to pass up.

Gary Cohn is an award-winning journalist who is adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism.


This interview has been condensed and edited. It is the product of collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange


PHOTOS: Photo of Judge Nash in his office by Jessica Dallas. All other photos by Gary Cohn

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Protecting Foster Kids, Gov. Brown’s Veto Message, John Oliver on Mental Illness…and More

October 7th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

SUPES CREATE AN IMPORTANT PHILANTHROPY LIAISON FOR CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM…HELP FOR LGBTQ FOSTER KIDS…AND NEW LAWS TO CURB DRUGGING OF CA FOSTER CHILDREN

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to establish a new center—a philanthropy liaison—within the still developing Office of Child Protection. The new liaison effort will fill in a problematic gap in the child welfare system: collaboration with philanthropic groups on initiatives to better protect and serve foster kids.

The new Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships will have three staff members who will be tasked with securing funding assistance from philanthropic groups. Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion with Supe Sheila Kuehl said she sees the money going toward keeping kids safe from abuse, addressing trauma in foster children, and other critical safety and wellbeing efforts.

“The power of public-private partnerships has been under-utilized within the County. This motion changes that unfortunate dynamic,” Supervisor Solis said. “With this new Center in place, we will be far better positioned to combine the best thinking and resources of government and philanthropy into programs that work for children. That is why this initiative is a priority for me.”

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Christie Renick has more on the new center. Here’s a clip:

“We believe it will be a game-changer and lead to a more effective and collaborative relationship between government and philanthropy as we work together toward a better future for our children,” said Chris Essel, SCG’s president and CEO, in a press release.

Twelve philanthropic groups have already endorsed the center, according to a press release from Solis’ office: The Ahmanson Foundation; Annenberg Foundation; Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation/Pritzker Foster Care Initiative; Blue Shield of California Foundation; California Community Foundation; The California Endowment; David Bohnett Foundation; Hilton Foundation; The James Irvine Foundation; The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation; UniHealth Foundation; and Weingart Foundation.

“Improving our child welfare system requires the kind of innovative solutions that result from cross-sector collaboration. This is a very important example of government and philanthropy working together on behalf of our children and families,” said Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, in a press release.

The board also passed a motion by Supe Kuehl to hire a consultant to focus specifically on the finding areas in which the county departments are failing LGBTQ foster kids, who are over-represented in the child welfare system. The consultant will gather data and present recommendations to the board on how to better care for the vulnerable LGBTQ foster population, including recommendations on training for those in contact with the kids (like social workers, mental health professionals, and foster parents).

“All the young people in our foster care system face incredible challenges, but the nearly 20% who identify as LGBTQ are in great need of targeted support to ensure they’re properly cared for, valued and respected, said Kuehl. “This is an important first step in improving outcomes for these kids and I’m proud to have the opportunity to champion them today.”

Here’s a clip from Kuehl’s website:

These youth face unique challenges and barriers to finding positive outcomes and permanent homes—challenges stemming from discrimination due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.

Not only are LGBTQ youth over-represented in the foster care population, there are also significant disparities in experience between LGBTQ youth and their non-LGBTQ counterparts. These disparities could be mitigated if we develop and utilize accurate data and enhanced training efforts to more fully address their needs, including identifying and re-mediating the effects of bullying and trauma.

As part of a five-year, federal grant awarded to the LGBT Center in Los Angeles, the Williams Institute at UCLA and Holarchy Consulting conducted a landmark study of 786 randomly sampled foster youth ages 12 to 21. The findings show that 19 percent – nearly one in five – foster youth in Los Angeles County identify as LGBTQ. This means that there are almost four times more LGBTQ youth as a percentage of young people in foster care than those identifying as LGBTQ outside foster care.

Given this over-representation of LGBTQ youth among foster children, it is even more problematic that there has been very little focus on this population. According to the Williams-Holarchy study, LGBTQ youth have a higher than average number of foster care placements and a greater likelihood of being in a group home, hospitalized or homeless at some point in their lives. More stable placements and stronger reunification efforts could lead to improved educational and permanency outcomes.

Costly group home and hospital stays could be avoided with a more targeted approach in serving this unique population. While many of our departments have made very good efforts to develop specialized LGBTQ programs, now is the time for the County to systematically address the needs of LGBTQ youth in our child welfare system.

Also on Tuesday, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of three weakened, but still important, bills to curb doctors over-prescribing of dangerous psychotropic medications to vulnerable foster kids. San Jose Mercury News’ Karen De Sá has more on the three bills authored by Senators Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). (If you haven’t, be sure to read De Sá’s powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked over-drugging of California’s foster children.)


OPINION – CALIFORNIA’S 5,000 CRIMINAL STATUTES NEED AN OVERHAUL

Over the weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a pile of bills that would have created new crimes (and put more people behind bars for longer). In his veto message the governor urged caution, pointing out that the state already has a whopping 5,000 criminal laws. “I think we should pause and reflect how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just, and more cost-effective,” said Brown.

An LA Times editorial lauds the governor’s message, and calls for a sentencing commission to review the criminal statutes and give meaningful reform recommendations to responsive lawmakers. Here’s a clip:

We take that statement not as merely a wise admonition but as a call to action. California needs a comprehensive review of its 5,000 criminal statutes. It needs a sentencing commission to provide a holistic view of crimes and penalties, to recommend needed changes — what to roll back, what to toughen up — and to critique legislative proposals. It needs lawmakers who take such recommendations seriously and are prepared to inject some sense into our criminal justice framework.

The Legislature too often proves itself inadequate to the task. Senators and Assembly members carry bills as one-offs that respond to current tragedies, outrages or headlines, or that cater to the needs of particular advocacy groups, even when there is little or no evidence that greater safety or savings will result. There is an entire crime bill industry that measures effectiveness by the number of infractions turned into misdemeanors and misdemeanors turned into felonies. Results have included, for example, more serious charges and stiffer criminal sanctions for the theft of avocados or crustaceans than other goods of similar value, and long sentences for relatively minor nonviolent crimes such as drug possession.


https://youtu.be/NGY6DqB1HX8

JOHN OLIVER SLAMS THE STATE OF MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT IN AMERICA

John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, continues to hammer away at important social and criminal justice issues. This week, Oliver takes on the issue of mental health in the United States, including the inadequate treatment, the never-ending cycle of fatal encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill, and the horrifying fact that there are ten times more people with mental illness behind bars than in psychiatric hospitals. Watch the segment above.


A CLOSER LOOK AT THE NUMBERS BEHIND THE BIPARTISAN FEDERAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BILL

FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik has a very helpful analysis of the major bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill announced last week. (Backstory here.)

Here’s a clip:

The crimes that would have new mandatory minimums produce few convictions. They are interstate domestic violence — involving travel across state lines by an offender or victim — resulting in death or serious injury, or committed with a dangerous weapon; and providing goods or services to terrorists or proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

Just 44 people were sentenced for interstate domestic violence last year, according to the Sentencing Commission’s 2014 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics. And 162 people were sentenced for the category of crimes that includes arming or aiding terrorists.

The commission’s numbers include some people whose crimes wouldn’t have been covered by the new mandatory minimums proposed in the Senate bill. That’s because the legislation doesn’t cover everyone who has violated the relevant federal statutes; it covers only a subset of the most serious offenders. For instance, not all interstate domestic violence results in death or serious injury or is committed with a dangerous weapon.

For that reason, the number of people who would have been affected by the bill if it were in effect in 2014 is smaller — far smaller, according to Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports the bill but opposes the new mandatory minimums. She estimates that if the mandatory minimums were in place last year, they would have affected just 22 people for interstate domestic violence and just eight people for aiding or arming terrorists.

By contrast, thousands more people could benefit from a different provision of the bill. It retroactively applies the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the gap in sentencing guidelines between offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine. (Crack sentences, which disproportionately affect black prisoners, were significantly higher than those for powder.) Making the 2010 law retroactive would give approximately 6,500 people convicted of crack offenses who remain in prison the right to file a motion for a reduced sentence — although the bill doesn’t mandate that courts grant the motion and some of the prisoners already are near the end of their sentences.


THOUSANDS OF FEDERAL PRISONERS SERVING DRUG SENTENCES TO BE RELEASED WITHIN THE MONTH

And in the coming weeks, the US Department of Justice is scheduled to release around 6,000 drug offenders from federal prison, reducing prison overcrowding and shortening old, harsh drug-related sentences.

The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz has the story. Here’s a clip:

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. About two-thirds of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release. About one-third are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported, officials said.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — that reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.

The commission’s action is separate from an effort by President Obama to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, an initiative that has resulted in the early release of 89 inmates.

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform.

The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

The releases are part of a shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing that has been driven by a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration has failed and should be reversed.

Along with the commission’s action, the Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.

Posted in Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, mental health, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Report Describes Alarming Rise in LA Kids and Infants at Troubled Foster Care “Welcome Centers”

September 25th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



A new report released Monday by LA County’s Commission for Children and Families
shows that the number of children showing up at the county’s two foster care intake centers—called Welcome Centers—has jumped “alarmingly,”

The report’s authors described a “need for action,” as they told of a 40% increase in population in the combined two centers, from January to June, with a 26% increase in the second quarter over the first quarter.

The authors were most concerned about the jump in number of infants and children 0-2, which rose by a startling 71% in the second quarter, and also about the “repeat entries of adolescents,” which increased 41% during that same period.

So why the worrisome rise in kids and infants entering the Welcome Centers (which are supposed to limit kids of any age to a 23-hour stay)?

The primary reason, according to the report, was “an insufficient number of suitable foster care placements for these children, leading to stays longer than 24 hours [at the welcome centers], or multiple returns.”

So what ought to be done?

The commission’s Ad Hoc committee members, which spent five months writing the report, have a list of urgent recommendations they hope the county will adopt. But to understand the problems—and possible solutions—that this report describes, it helps to know a little about how the Welcome Centers came into being.


WELCOME CENTERS: THE BACK STORY

When children are removed from their families because of concerns of abuse and/or neglect, and transferred into LA County’s care, there is often a brief lag time before the kids—be they infants, toddlers, grade schoolers, or teenagers—are placed with either a foster family or, in the case of some children with more complicated needs, into a specialized group home. During that lag time, these children who are entering the system (or in some instances being moved within the system, awaiting transfer from one placement to another) need to be somewhere that is safe and that, ideally, can also ease the traumatizing and often frightening transition they are making.

For more than a decade the county’s Department of Children and Family Services has been struggling to find the right short term environment where children and teenagers could stay during this lag-time. At the same time, DCFS was theoretically working to create a system that made sure that the gap period—between the moment of entering the system, and matching children with foster care placement—was as short as possible, hopefully no more than 24 hours.

In the years after the closing in 2003 of MacLaren Hall, the county’s scandal and abuse-plagued facility that was previously used to fill the gap, social workers were reduced to stashing kids wherever they could, in their offices, sometimes even in their cars.

Then in 2012, the county opened what they optimistically named The Children’s Welcome Center, as a 23-hour short term shelter for children from 0-11 years old. In 2014, the county opened the companion Youth Welcome Center to similarly serve the 12 to 21-year-old foster population.

Neither facility is licensed by the state, hence the 23 hour cutoff—which is now routinely exceeded, according to the report, especially in the case of the Youth Welcome Center, where kids exit the facility during the day then come back at night to start the 23-hour clocking ticking again.

The Youth Welcome Center, in particular, has become mired in controversy, with kids getting into brawls, staff complaining about not enough bathrooms for children’s needs and privacy, and about staffers’ concern that allowing emotionally vulnerable 12-year-olds to sleep in the same physical environment as traumatized and disaffected 17-to-21-year-olds is a recipe for disaster. (And then there is the matter of the persistent rumors about younger residents being recruited for sex trafficking by older residents at the center.)


FINDING SOLUTIONS

The first line of defense, according to the report, is the most obvious: the county must “develop a plan for aggressive recruitment for foster families” for each of these groups of children.

In recruiting potential foster parents for infants and very young children, there are several things that stand in the way, including the fact that foster parents aren’t adequately reimbursed for costs like diapers, and that it’s difficult for working foster parents to get child care for their charges, and more. These and other barriers must be addressed, says the report.

(To be honest, it’s perplexing that such simple and obvious issues have not been addressed thus far, as DCFS continues to bemoan the lack of good foster parents.)

For the older children, the report recommends the creation of a pilot program that includes the formation of a small “multi-disciplinary/departmental entry-response team” that would include someone from each one of the relevant agencies, namely DCFS, the Department of Mental Health, the LA County office of Education (LACOE), the Department of Health services, and so on. This emergency team would meet with the foster child and his or her social worker, and also the kid’s family, within 24-48 hours, and form a plan for placement that includes staying on the case with the child until he or she is placed.

Wendy Smith—who is an Associate Dean at USC’s School of Social work, and one of the three commission members who authored Monday’s report—told us that, in addition to the emergency response team, there should be “a point person” who was in daily touch with foster care providers like emergency shelters and group homes, and thus would know what beds were available at the various facilities. “If you had someone who was in daily touch, that would make a big difference,” Smith said.

Indeed. So it would seem.

[Note: on the subject of group homes, please read about the closure of the extravagantly complaint-plagued Bayfront Youth and Family Services.

As for the Welcome Centers, the commission recommends phasing them out as soon as possible in favor of a decentralized system of emergency shelters that already exist throughout the county. The authors point out that a new state law will require a decentralized approach within three years anyway. The state also requires the Welcome Centers to make the changes necessary to get themselves licensed by the state, which will likely mean costly improvements—yet another reason, according to the commission, to go with regional emergency centers now.

Over the next three years, the report hopes for “the development of a best practice model for L.A. County, building on the existing network of 72-hour shelters.”

During that same time, the report proposes the launch of a new task force that could look at who was doing what elsewhere in the nation, in order to help design a “trauma-informed” system for LA that provides more than an emergency stop gap, but also helps “…children and youth who have experienced so much change and uncertainty, in addition to the maltreatment and violence that led to system involvement in the first place,” thereby “decreasing the negative effects of entry or re-entry into placement and increasing the likelihood of successful planning and placement.”

Sounds like the least we can do for the kids that we have taken into our care.

So who has to say yes for some of the commission’s suggested solutions to be instituted?

“I’m encouraged by the county’s response to some of these issues,” said Smith. But as to who actually has the power to trigger the change, the sources we talked to agreed that action by the Board of Supervisors could put everything in motion.

So, over to you, LA County Board of Supes. Thoughts?


P.S. CHRISTIE RENICK AT THE CHRONICLE OF SOCIAL CHANGE HAS A VERY GOOD STORY ON THE COMMISSION’S REPORT

So take a look at what she has to say here.

Posted in Foster Care | 1 Comment »

YouthBuild, the “Holloway Doctrine,” and ICE Modifies How It Issues Detainer Requests in CA

September 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

YOUTHBUILD PROGRAM IN SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY GIVES NEW HOPE AND A CAREER PATH TO KIDS AT RISK OF DROPPING OUT OR ENTERING THE JUVIE JUSTICE SYSTEM

In California’s San Joaquin County and across the nation, the YouthBuild program teaches construction skills to struggling teens while helping them obtain their high school diplomas or GEDs.

The alternative education program lasts for six months to two years and serves 16 to 24-year-olds who are aging out of foster care, have had contact with the juvenile justice system, or are otherwise at risk of dropping out. YouthBuild also connects teens and young adults with contractors and apprentice programs upon their graduation from the program.

Last month, six YouthBuilds in California received a portion of $76 million in funding from the US Labor Department. The $1.1 million allocated to San Joaquin’s YouthBuild will cover the cost of 80 students for two years, plus a year of assistance after graduation.

The Stockton Record’s Reed Fujii has more on YouthBuild and how it shifts struggling kids’ trajectories. Here’s a clip:

Roosevelt Webb lost his way after his father died.

He had dropped out of school as a senior at Edison High in Stockton to help take care of his dad and, at age 21 and with no diploma, he said, “I didn’t know what to do.”

Another Stocktonian, James Vong, said as a teenager he had no guidance, no father figure, and growing up on the city’s gritty streets, found himself falling into drugs and the gang life.

But both have found a new direction through San Joaquin County’s YouthBuild program, an alternative educational program that emphasizes building-trades skills as well as academic school standards.

Webb, now 24, works for the San Joaquin County Office of Education, helping supervise YouthBuild teams on construction sites.

And Vong, 20, is enrolled in the program and was working on an affordable housing project in south Stockton as part of Webb’s team.

“Ever since attending YouthBuild, I made a 360 degree flip,” he said of his life. “Now I’m working at Habitat (for Humanity’s Dream Creek project), doing what I love.”


JUDGES (AND PROSECUTORS) HAVE THE ABILITY TO GRANT LENIENCY TO INMATES SERVING OUTDATED, TOUGH-ON-CRIME SENTENCES

Despite increased federal efforts to lower prison populations by releasing non-violent drug offenders, President Barack Obama ranks among the ten least merciful presidents of the United States, having granted only 153 pardons, commutations, remissions, and respites, thus far.

Recent releases of two men serving excessively high and outdated sentences (often for drugs) have brought attention to another less-used method of leniency. The two men, Francois Holloway and Luis Anthony Rivera have successfully petitioned judges to reduce their old, disproportionately harsh sentences. The original prosecutors had to consent to the judges’ decisions.

Advocates and legal experts believe that if federal prosecutors will agree not to oppose judges’ leniency, the appropriately named “Holloway Doctrine” has the potential to lead to the release of many more inmates serving sentences that would not be handed down today.

The LA Times’ Richard Serrano has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Rivera and Holloway asked federal judges for leniency, something that happens frequently, and federal prosecutors agreed not to fight, which is rare.

The original sentencing judges agreed to take a fresh look at the punishments of the two men. Assured that both had turned their lives around, the judges and prosecutors agreed to vacate parts of their original convictions and reduce their sentences to “time already served.”

Legal experts predict the cases could open the door to similar requests by many more prisoners if federal prosecutors are willing to take the same approach elsewhere.

“That’s a pretty novel way to do things,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. “I’ve not run across a lot of people who ever get out that way, and we get letters every day from people wanting help.”

Mauer predicted that the Rivera and Holloway examples will prompt defense lawyers around the country to seek similar relief for clients and will give judges “a level of comfort” in agreeing.

“It’s always the courageous ones that go first,” he said.

Holloway’s case went to court last year in Brooklyn, where the top federal prosecutor at the time was U.S. Atty. Loretta Lynch, who is now attorney general. Lynch at first resisted his release, suggesting he seek a presidential commutation. But she ultimately agreed not to oppose his appeal.

The original sentencing judge, John Gleeson, a former prosecutor who had put Mafia boss John Gotti in prison, noted that Holloway had served more time for robbing three cars than “if he had committed first-degree murder.”

“Black men like Holloway have long been disproportionally subjected to the stacking of counts,” Gleeson said, referring to sentencing rules that he said forced him to sentence Holloway to 57 years in prison in 1996.

The judge applauded Lynch for consenting to the release.

“This is a significant case, and not just for Francois Holloway,” he said. “It demonstrates the difference between a Department of Prosecutions and a Department of Justice.”


FEDERAL IMMIGRATION DEPT. CHANGES APPROACH IN HOPES OF REGAINING COMPLIANCE FROM CA LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

In the face of law enforcement agencies’ widespread refusal to comply with federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants in jails for up to 48 hours, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representatives say the department is trying to be more flexible and meet law enforcement groups in the middle.

Under the new system, ICE analysts in a SoCal office run data on arrests to determine who is high priority for deportation before issuing detainer requests. ICE still asks law enforcement to let them know when they are releasing someone facing deportation, but issues fewer detainer requests for low-level offenders.

The LA County Sheriff’s Department changed its stance from no compliance with ICE detainer requests to allowing ICE to interview incarcerated immigrants, but still refuses to keep immigrants locked up past their release dates.

The Associated Press has more ICE’s new methods and how law enforcement agencies are responding. Here’s a clip:

…immigration authorities have also narrowed their focus to people convicted of more serious crimes, and the number of so-called detainer requests — which aim to have jails hold inmates up to 48 hours for deportation officers to pick them up — dropped by 24 percent in the 2014 fiscal year from a year earlier.

At the same time, the number of people deported from the United States, not counting those apprehended on the border, fell 24 percent, federal statistics show.

Immigration authorities had begun issuing detainers based on electronic data after getting access to fingerprints from jail bookings under enhanced law enforcement information-sharing after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

ICE initially started the hub in suburban Southern California to streamline the process for the region, one of the key spots where detainers were used. Now, the Pacific Enforcement Response Center issues about 40 percent of all immigration detainers and requests for notification when inmates are being released, handling the task for much of the country on nights and weekends.

The office, which issued 6,800 detainers and notification requests between June and August, contains half a dozen computers that collect leads for potential deportees and spit out the results on a large printer. Analysts and agents then search for matches in databases for visa holders, naturalized citizens and border arrests to determine the immigration status of those booked into local jails.

In the last three months, detainers or notification requests were sent in 11 percent of the center’s cases. Others are typically sent to field agents for investigation and about half are set aside because the person is here legally or doesn’t have a serious criminal conviction to make them a priority for deportation under the program, which was revamped last year, ICE officials said.

Under the new approach, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department lets immigration agents interview inmates who have detainers but won’t hold them beyond their release date. In Santa Clara County, officials still won’t honor detainers but are weighing whether to notify ICE about serious offenders, while authorities in San Francisco won’t do either despite public outcry after the shooting.

Posted in Education, Foster Care, immigration, juvenile justice | No Comments »

Bills to Pay Attention to as CA Closes in on the End of the Legislative Session

September 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE BILL THAT HAD POTENTIAL TO RIGHT SERIOUS WRONGS HAS BEEN WATERED DOWN, AND LIKELY WON’T PASS OVER THE LAST HURDLE BEFORE GOV. BROWN’S DESK

A bill to block police agencies from abusing civil asset forfeiture has come up against major opposition from law enforcement. Asset forfeiture laws allow government entities to keep money, cars, real estate, and other property that may be associated with a crime (usually a drug crime). Across the nation, local agencies are abusing the tool, using it as a cash cow, by taking money and property from people who have not been convicted of a crime. SB 443, introduced by and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would have only allowed law enforcement agencies to seize assets post-conviction, even after legislators weakened the bill to give it a better chance of passing.

But law enforcement groups went to battle against the bill this week, storming the capitol and urging legislators to pull their support or further amend the legislation, which they say will result in an annual budgetary loss in upwards of $80 million for CA law enforcement. And the US Department of Justice has stepped in to say that if the bill passes into law, CA may lose out on federal funding from an asset forfeiture program.

Today, legislators will take a final vote on SB 443 before it either heads to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, or more likely, the garbage bin.

In his column, San Diego Union Tribune’s Steven Greenhut preemptively laments the bill’s demise. Greenhut says that if the bill dies, “California police agencies and district attorneys don’t care about justice. They’re just about the money.” Here’s how it opens:

…When police agencies use “civil asset forfeiture” to take private property, they are not allowed to build their budgets around such takings. The funds are supposed to support extra programs – not supplant current dollars. That’s so agencies don’t replace the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of cash.

Unfortunately, forfeiture has become a widely abused practice. Instead of targeting drug kingpins as intended, police sometimes target average citizens who haven’t been convicted or even accused of a crime. For instance, officials tried to take a $1.5 million Anaheim office building because one of the owners’ tenants was accused of illegally selling a $37 in marijuana.

There are many cases of police pulling over a driver and finding a large sum of cash – and they often keep the cash even if there’s no evidence it was tied to a crime. It’s clear why this happens. A recent report shows a number of Southern California cities rely on forfeiture cases to fund their budgets. If they can take it, they will. And to avoid California’s tougher restrictions on these takings, police partner with the feds and split the loot.

SB 443 is a bipartisan effort to rein in the abuses. Mainly, it required a conviction before police can take property. It also was designed to stop police from bringing in the feds to circumvent state law and make it easier for people to contest a taking. It forces police to use this fearsome tool as intended – to target criminal enterprises – rather than to grab the cars of people caught in a minor offense.

The bill is scheduled for a final vote on Thursday, but law-enforcement lobbies are swarming the Capitol. Police chiefs are calling legislators. Some legislators from both parties are reportedly getting wobbly.


ADVOCATES HOPE A BILL PROTECTING THE PRIVACY OF UNDOCUMENTED MINORS WILL SERVE AS A MODEL FOR THE NATION

Gov. Jerry Brown signed an important bill to protect juvenile justice system-involved immigrant children from being deported by banning the unauthorized disclosure of kids’ records to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a court order.

The Voice of OC’s YVette Cabrera (whose recent series explored the hardships of undocumented boys navigating the juvenile justice system) has more on the bill and its implications. Here’s a clip:

In short, the new law makes it clear that the long-standing practice by some probation agencies in California of referring juveniles suspected of being undocumented to immigration authorities is illegal.

The controversial practice was contested for years by legal scholars, attorneys and immigrant youth advocates who said the referrals violated the state’s existing law protecting juvenile confidentiality as well as the constitutional rights of vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice system, including those with mental health and developmental issues.

Probation officials across the state — from Orange County to Santa Barbara to San Mateo — have disputed these assertions. They’ve claimed the referrals are legally sound, citing a federal law that not only protects their right to communicate and cooperate with immigration authorities, but which they said also supersedes state law.

San Francisco attorney Angie Junck with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which helped draft AB 899, said she was relieved with the outcome.

“We are extremely happy and grateful for the leadership in Sacramento that understood that we need to uphold the law for everybody in the state regardless of immigration status,” Junck said. “We understand that there’s a lot of work ahead, but this is an important milestone in upholding due process and equal protection for all minors in our state.”

Junck said she plans to share the legislation with national legal and immigration networks and hopes that California’s efforts will be replicated in other states.


BILLS TO PROTECT THE STATE’S MOST VULNERABLE POPULATION

When foster kids are transferred out of their home counties, they face months-long interruptions in much-needed mental health services. The problem is that, under current law, instead of following the kids, the responsibility (and funding) to provide mental health treatment remains with their home county.

AB 1299, introduced by Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), which would have ensured foster kids transferred outside of their home counties received continued mental health services in their new counties, was tabled until next year.

Writing for the Chronicle of Social Change, Patrick Gardner, director of the Young Minds Advocacy Project, has more on why AB 1299 failed to make it into the governor’s hands. Here’s a clip:

What is clear is that lobbyists for three county-centered entities — the California State Association of Counties, the California Behavioral Health Directors Association and the California Welfare Directors Association — opposed two critical parts of the solution. They opposed having funding follow the child to the child’s county of residence. Instead, the counties proposed giving half of the cost of services (the federal reimbursement half) to the county that provides treatment.

They also opposed having the foster parent, or the person who is responsible for making mental health decisions for the child, decide whether to transfer mental health care responsibility. Instead, the counties wanted social workers and probation officers to be gatekeepers.

It’s absurd to think that a system fix that covers only half the cost of care would work. It is also unreasonable to put responsibility for making system-wide mental health policy on individual social workers or probation officers, something that is clearly outside of their wheelhouse.

In short, it appears that the county lobbyists opposed the bill because it would have changed business as usual to ensure that foster youth who are sent to live in another county are no longer discriminated against when seeking mental health care. It’s a classic case of taking care of the system instead of taking care of the kids.

When one talks to individual social workers and probation officers, or even directors of children’s services or mental health care programs, they universally favor shifting responsibility for care to the county that can best deliver treatment and making sure full funding is there to pay for the services provided.

A package of three weakened, but still important, bills to curb doctors over-prescribing of dangerous psychotropic medications to vulnerable foster kids, has passed through the Assembly and is headed to the Senate for a final vote. (If you haven’t, read Karen De Sá’s powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked over-drugging of California’s foster children.)

California Healthline has more on the individual bills.

Another noteworthy foster care bill, SB 731, would give guidance to social workers placing transgender foster kids to ensure they are placed in safe, welcoming homes. The bill, by Sens. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Jim Beall (D-San Jose), has been passed by both houses and awaits the governor’s signature.

The bill “provides critical guidance to child welfare professionals by making clear that all children in foster care have the right to placements that are consistent with their gender identity,” said Shannan Wilber, the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Youth Policy Director.

A bill by Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), SB 445, which is also on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, would ensure children who become homeless can continue to attend their schools of origin.

Posted in Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Foster Care, juvenile justice, LGBT | No Comments »

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