Transforming Foster Care, Indigent Defense, and Malcolm Gladwell on School Shootings


In a final round of bill-signing over the weekend, California Governor Jerry Brown signed an important bill to overhaul counties’ child welfare placement systems, by focusing on long-term placements with foster families and eliminating group homes.

If successfully implemented, AB 403 appears to have a lot of potential to restructure a system that has bred scandal-plagued group homes and in LA County’s case, “Welcome Centers” where kids are meant to stay for less than 24 hours, but have instead become a sort of purgatory for hard-to-place kids.

By January 1, 2017, the current controversial group home model will be thrown out in favor of short-term residential treatment centers (STRTCs) which will have to meet much higher standards of care than today’s group homes. Kids placed in the STRTCs will stay a maximum of six months while receiving specialized therapeutic treatment for mental health and other needs. A certain number of those (STRTCs) will be geared toward helping kids involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The bill, authored by CA Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), will create wraparound medical and mental health treatment for kids living under the care of foster parents, and foster parents will receive intensive training and support to ensure they are equipped and ready to care for their foster children.

“Children who enter foster care need safe, comfortable, supportive places to stay, whether that is with a relative, a foster family, or a treatment center,” said Sen. Stone. “Current options for placement, particularly the existing model for group homes, do not always meet these needs. The reforms in this new law will provide youth with the support they need in foster care to return to their families or to find a permanent home if returning to their families is not an option.”

The bill was sponsored by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) and was built from recommendations in a 2015 CDSS report, California’s Child Welfare Continuum of Care Reform, which was developed with feedback from foster kids and families, care providers, social workers, and policymakers.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Jeremy Loudenback has more on the legislation and its implications. Here’s a clip:

Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services (CACFS), calls the bill “a once in a generation opportunity to get foster care right.”

According to National Center for Youth Law Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez, the passage of AB 403 caps more than 15 years of work to create reform for congregate care.

“This is the first significant effort that aligns our state’s policy with what developmental science is telling us, that congregate care is really detrimental to the development and well-being of youth in foster care,” said Rodriguez, who spent time as a group-home resident during her youth.

The primary driver of reform in the bill is the establishment of short-term residential treatment centers (STRTCs), a model that would take the place of existing group homes in the state. STRTCs would be licensed by the CDSS to provide only short-term, specialized and intensive treatment to those children with demonstrated need, and all such placements would require a case plan and timeline for moving the child to a less restrictive placement.

Stays of more than six months can only be provided with the approval of senior county welfare directors, and most facilities would be incentivized to provide health services that resemble hospital stays rather than semi-permanent living arrangements.

These centers will be subject to a monitoring system based on yet-to-be-created standards and inspection plans. The bill instructs the CDSS to develop the infrastructure for those quality control efforts, along with stepped-up monitoring of foster homes provided through contracts with foster family agencies.

SB 403 would also require counties to pay attention to the needs of foster youth involved with the probation system (so-called crossover youth). The bill calls for the creation of STRTCs aimed at crossover youth, as well as the implementation of strategies aimed at recruiting and retaining specialized foster homes for these youth and increased supports that would allow them to live with relative caregivers when possible.


On Monday night, Al Jazeera America’s investigative program, Fault Lines, shined an investigative light on the state of pretrial detention in the US, and how the system fails poor defendants. Fault Lines traveled to California, New York, and Mississippi, focusing on overloaded public defenders and the punishment-until-proven-innocent system that keeps people locked up while they await trial if they are unable to post bail. There are nearly 500,000 pretrial detainees in jails across the nation. The average length of a pretrial detention stay is 68 days.

As of this post, Al Jazeera America has not yet released the full episode online, but when it becomes available, you can watch it here.

As part of their investigation, reporters interviewed Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, an advocacy group fighting for pretrial reform in the criminal justice system. Burdeen talks about about the history of the cash bail system, its devastating effects on the lives of poor defendants and their families, and what can be done to solve the problem. Here’s a clip from the interview:

Fault Lines: What gets you really upset about this issue of pretrial detention?

Burdeen: The existing system that sets cash bail amounts for the charge for which people have been arrested tends to over-detain low-risk people who are too poor to make those bond amounts. So you see, over the last 15 years, in fact, jail populations have increased, and almost 100% of that increase in the jail population is pretrial detention.

The other side of that is people using that same cash bail system to get out when we hoped they wouldn’t. So judges are often forced to set high bond amounts on people they think are too dangerous to be released. And we know from research that about half the time, people are making those bond amounts.

So then you have these two problems, right? You have jails packed with people too poor to get out, but not that dangerous. And you have the dangerous people who have access to friends, family, criminal enterprise that enables them to have that cash to get out.

Is this a relatively new problem?

I just described low-risk people being detained on bond amounts they can’t meet. Attorney General Robert Kennedy said the same thing 50 years ago. This is not a new problem. The quantity of the problem has gotten larger. What we know today that we didn’t know then—we suspected then, but we didn’t know quantitatively from research—is if you are detained as a low-risk person, when you finally get out, you are more likely to commit crime than if you had been released pretrial.

Can you paint a picture of the impact pretrial detention has on a person’s life?

We think there is at least three main factors that we know low-risk people have. They are the same probable low-risk factors you and I have. We have a stable job, we have housing and we have connections with family. And in the first couple days of jail, those things have a tendency to get disrupted very quickly.

You may have a job at a temp agency or a minimum wage job, where if you don’t show up for one or two of your shifts, or if you call in off those shifts, you are likely to lose that job. If you have family members that you are living with and staying with, your family gets very anxious and disrupted around this event. It’s very hard on the kids, which has an impact on the parents that have been jailed those first few days.


The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, author of such non-fiction bestsellers as Blink, The Tipping Point, and What the Dog Saw, analyzes America’s school shooting epidemic and what might be fueling the fire.

Gladwell says that rather than searching for what connects seemingly dissimilar mass shooters, we should consider the boys as a group, and that even though the group members are spread across decades and across the country, it makes sense “to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before…”

Here’s a clip from Gladwell’s New Yorker essay (which we highly recommend reading in its entirety):

[Stanford sociologist Mark] Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him were grabbing cameras from the electronics store.

Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.

His argument has a second implication. We misleadingly use the word “copycat” to describe contagious behavior—implying that new participants in an epidemic act in a manner identical to the source of their infection. But rioters are not homogeneous. If a riot evolves as it spreads, starting with the hotheaded rock thrower and ending with the upstanding citizen, then rioters are a profoundly heterogeneous group.

Finally, Granovetter’s model suggests that riots are sometimes more than spontaneous outbursts. If they evolve, it means they have depth and length and a history. Granovetter thought that the threshold hypothesis could be used to describe everything from elections to strikes, and even matters as prosaic as how people decide it’s time to leave a party. He was writing in 1978, long before teen-age boys made a habit of wandering through their high schools with assault rifles. But what if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is to go back and use the Granovetterian model—to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?


Sociologist Nathalie E. Paton has analyzed the online videos created by post-Columbine shooters and found a recurring set of stylized images: a moment where the killer points his gun at the camera, then at his own temple, and then spreads his arms wide with a gun in each hand; the closeup; the wave goodbye at the end. “School shooters explicitly name or represent each other,” she writes. She mentions one who “refers to Cho as a brother-in-arms”; another who “points out that his cultural tastes are like those of ‘Eric and Dylan’ ”; a third who “uses images from the Columbine shooting surveillance camera and devotes several videos to the Columbine killers.” And she notes, “This aspect underlines the fact that the boys actively take part in associating themselves to a group.”

Larkin and Paton are describing the dynamics of Granovetter’s threshold model of group behavior. Luke Woodham, the third in this progression, details in his journal how he and a friend tortured his dog, Sparkle: “I will never forget the howl she made. It sounded almost human. We laughed and hit her hard.” A low-threshold participant like Woodham didn’t need anyone to model his act of violence for him: his imagination was more than up to the task.

But compare him to a post-Columbine shooter like Darion Aguilar, the nineteen-year-old who last year killed two people in a skate shop in a Maryland shopping mall before killing himself. Aguilar wanted to be a chef. He had a passion for plant biology. He was quiet, but not marginalized or bullied.

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