Step Up Legislative Priorities in 2016
Simplifying Criminal History Background Checks
California’s dependency statutes express a strong policy preference for placing children with relatives whenever possible. However, California’s criminal history rules are in serious conflict with this policy, as they are extremely complex, overbroad, and unduly restrictive. The Step Up Coalition is committed to working on this issue this year in order to ensure more caring relatives have the opportunity to take in their kin.
Current California law requires exemptions for all crimes no matter how long ago that they occurred and even if they had nothing to do with child’s safety. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, federal legislation enacted in 2008, requires the states to complete background checks on all foster parents as a prerequisite to receiving foster care funding. This method of performing background checks still holds serious crimes as unacceptable for foster parents, but does not hold minor crimes that happened a long time ago against the foster parent when they are attempting to take in a youth. Unfortunately, state legislation implementing the Adam Walsh act added the federal requirements, without repealing the now-superfluous state-law requirements. Conforming state law to these federal requirements would be far more straightforward to administer than California’s current maze of cross-referenced lists of crimes, exemption procedures, nonexemptible crimes and more importantly, would not compromise the child’s safety. Foster youth agents would still be able to deny placement with guardians who have serious felony convictions on their record no matter how long ago it took place.
The Step Up Coalition is working on simplifying the criminal history background checks to open up the opportunity to take in kin for more possible relative caregivers. SB 1201 was the Step Up Coalition’s attempt to simplify the background check process. It made it through Senate Human Services and Judiciary Committee before being help up in the Appropriations Committee. The Step Up Coalition is still committed to working this issue out to allow more relative caregivers to become timely placements for their kin.
Under current California law, relatives are the preferential placement option for foster youth. Research has shown that children tend to be more emotionally well-off when placed with relatives, and reunification with parents is usually enhanced by placement with relatives. It is imperative that when possible, placement with a relative is done swiftly. Unfortunately, placement with relatives is often delayed or denied despite the relative being the safest option available for the specific youth.
Often this delay is due to a “hit” during the relatives criminal background check and they are attempting to navigate the exemption process. This exemption process proves to be exceptionally difficult if the crime in question occurred many years ago, which is often the case, because they are required to gather all the court documents and arrest records to present to the county. After that, there is no timeline in place for the county workers to assess the records and make ruling all the while the child or children are split up from their siblings in strangers homes. The Step Coalition believes that the county workers should assist the prospective caregiver in retrieving the necessary forms and that timelines should be in place for when a ruling is rendered to ensure that placement with a safe relative is done as swiftly as possible.
SB 942, being led by the Step Up Coalition, would help expedite the process of getting foster youth placed with kin when appropriate. Specifically, SB 942 would require county workers to assist relatives to obtain all necessary records and further require the county to make a final decision on the assessment within 30 days. If the exemption process is not complete within 30 days, the court may set a hearing date and order placement with the relative if it is determined that is in the best interest of the youth.
Relative foster parents often receive their children under drastically different circumstances that regular foster parents. While other foster parents have months to get prepared for the arrival of their youth, kinship caregivers receive their kin without a moment’s notice in an emergency placement. One of the biggest obstacles that caregivers have to overcome is attempting to get child care, which is no small task in California. Parents often have to sit on waiting lists for months on end trying to get their children in child care which does not help our kinship providers who need child care immediately. Child care, if it can be accessed, enables a larger pool of families to become foster parents, providing a safe and loving home for more children in need. The lack of access to child care is one of the top barriers to finding and sustaining placements for foster children.
We can help foster families bridge the timing gap between the moment of placement and the time by which they can access subsidized child care. To do this effectively, the Emergency Child Care Bridge Program for Foster Children was proposed, which would allocate $22 million annually to provide time-limited child care vouchers to foster children. The request for funding was proposed by a broad coalition of child welfare and child care advocates, spearheaded by Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and led by the Alliance for Children’s Rights and Children Now.. This emergency voucher would ensure the child can be cared for during the day, when the foster parent is at work, school or fulfilling foster parent training and home approval requirements. By building a bridge between California’s child welfare and child care systems, we can recruit and retain more foster families, stabilize children at a critical moment of their lives, and help ensure that they can benefit from high-quality, ongoing, trauma-informed child development services that prepare them for school and life.