A State-Wide Trauma-Informed Care Approach: Implementation of Stricter Guidelines for Discretion in Child Welfare Cases and a Shift Towards Family Services in the Early Stages

I. Current Landscape

            The good news is that California as a state recognizes the importance of implementing a trauma informed approach to child welfare cases. Assembly Bill 2083 was approved by Governor Brown at the end of 2018. The bill provides a continuum of care provision, which means that foster children will no longer be aged out of the system, and provisions for counties to ensure that foster care placements are actually equipped with training to deal with children who have trauma. The legislation is focused on creating case plans or placements that are tailored to the specific needs of each child, since we know that children entering the system have been through life events that create long-lasting trauma.

            In my view, AB 2083 establishes the threshold for a state-wide approach to child dependency. Assemblyman Ken Cooley, who introduced this legislation, asserts that the bill does the following:

  1. Sets the expectation for coordinated services at the local level for youth who require services from multiple agencies through formalized Memorandums of Understanding.
  2. Requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Superintendent of Public Instruction to establish a joint inter-agency resolution team at the State level with certain responsibilities, including but not limited to, providing technical assistance to county agencies to establish local MOUs, and link youth to needed services.
  3. Requires the interagency team to review the availability of appropriate placements (from family homes to congregate care) that are trained and/or supported to provide trauma-informed care to foster youth and make recommendations to the Legislature for improvements in this area.
  4. Requires the interagency team to consult with stakeholders, including practitioners, to develop a plan to increase the availability of trauma-informed services to youth in care.

All of these things are great and a step in the right direction, but what if there were state-wide Memoranda of Understanding that each county agreed upon that addressed the needs of families before children are removed and placed in foster care? Why are there not interagency teams established by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to link parents to drug treatment programs, housing opportunities, child care and job training so that families have the tools to create healthy environments for themselves and their children?

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Sense of Community: Basic Challenges Facing Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth in Foster Care

Dr. Ryan T. Anderson of The Heritage Foundation has made a career of late arguing that transgender people are merely making a choice regarding their identity and not affirming openly a fact that their gender identity fundamentally differs from their sex at birth. People like Dr. Anderson, PhD,  know, or believe they know, or think they know, what it means to be  transgender/gender nonconforming (TGNC). They believe it to be fundamentally an act of choice: to reject one sex and elect to be part of another.  They are partially correct; in some manner, there is a choice. But the choice isn’t between genders, or sexes, or sexuality, but rather a choice of whether to live life as one’s authentic self or to keep hidden from the world a basic internal truth of who one is as an individual.

Gender Identity [PDF Pg. 4], as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “[a] person’s deeply-felt-, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender neutral) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth or to a persons’ primary or secondary sex characteristics. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.” The same APA definition goes on to state that one’s “affirmed gender identity [. . . ] refers to a person’s gender identity after coming out as TGNC or undergoing social and//or medical transition process.”

In this post, I will discuss the issue of visibility and community for TGNC youth, I will talk about how TGNC foster youth have exceptionally bad outcomes even when compared to non-TGNC youth in foster care, and finally, I will briefly touch on the existing Foster Youth Bill of Rights in the California Welfare and Institutions Code. Continue reading “Sense of Community: Basic Challenges Facing Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth in Foster Care”

A Consolidated Court System gives Dually Involved Youth a Better Chance for Positive Outcomes

Dually-involved youth (DIY) in jurisdictions without a consolidated system in place, could have two separate cases, before two separate judges, each with different goals. If this wasn’t confusing enough, the two court systems might not have coordination, cooperation, or communication. The child could be represented by two different lawyers and would be assigned a probation officer and a social worker, which could have very different case plans that include contradictory orders and services that interfere with one another. Each of these stakeholders plays an important role in making decisions that can affect DIY for the rest of their lives.

Because DIY present more complex issues than single-jurisdiction youth, they tend to drain already scarce resources from child welfare agencies, probation departments, and the courts. This can happen when agencies duplicate case management efforts. Additionally, because there are multiple parties involved, usually with differing goals and means of achieving them, costs can add up and their plans can be less effective than if there was a consolidated effort to provide a unified plan administered by cooperating agencies. I will not be addressing financial costs in this post; in the next post I will discuss financial costs and how having a unified system of courts and service programming will benefit all of us as a society. In this post I will focus instead on some of the challenges raised by having DIY report to multiple agencies and/or courts and show the advantages for DIY in jurisdictions using an integrated systems approach.

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White Saviors are Not Saving Children

While many of us would like to believe we live in a post racial era, where everyone is seen and treated as an equal, unfortunately, that just isn’t so. In many of our systems, even those designed to do good and help others, race matters a great deal. One such system is the child welfare/ foster care system. It’s no secret that children of color are overrepresented in this system. This has been acknowledged for many years. In this series of posts, I aim to address why race matters in this system, how the race and culture of a child should be considered in his/her foster care placement, and the ways in which we can work to make the system better for children and families of color.

Before we dive into talking about racial disparities, implicit biases, and sifting through whether or not the child welfare system is racist and what that really means, there’s something that I think is important to acknowledge and understand: discussing race often makes people uncomfortable, defensive, and sometimes angry. I believe it is critical to establish the lens through which I am viewing and discussing this issue.

Continue reading “White Saviors are Not Saving Children”

Unpacking Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Impact on Foster Care Youth

In the past 20 years, doctors and public healthcare professionals have uncovered a clear link between poor adult health and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are “stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance abuse disorders.” ACEs not only lead to early morbidity, but they also have been found to promote participation in maladaptive, “high-risk,” behaviors. 

In the United States, adults who have experienced 6 or more ACEs during their childhood are 24.36 times more likely to attempt suicide than a person without ACEs. According to the 2017 article from the International Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect, not only are adults with high ACE scores likely to attempt suicide, but they are also 3.73 times more likely to use illegal drugs, 2.84 times more likely to engage in heavy alcohol use, and 2.73 times more likely to suffer from depression. 

Unfortunately, adults who suffer from drug addictions and alcohol abuse are not less likely to have children than their peers. Instead, they become families with adult caregivers who suffer from drug and alcohol addictions. At a certain point, when the substance abuse is unmanageable, law enforcement and Child Protective Services will intervene in the best interest of the child. If the parent is unable to cure their addiction, their child will join nearly 52,000 other youth who are in California’s Foster Care System.

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Notice, Courts, and Culture: ICWA in the Modern Era

Although the history of discrimination against Native American children and families is apparent to most, the decision to keep ICWA in practice today remains controversial. In October of 2018, a federal judge in Texas struck down ICWA as unconstitutional in Brackeen v. Zinke (2018). The Fifth Circuit has heard oral arguments and will issue a decision later this year, but dissatisfaction with ICWA has been festering for years. The Brackeens—the family who are the plaintiffs in this case—are merely the face of families and political actors that have been dissatisfied with the way ICWA has played out within the foster care system.

The Notice Requirement and ICWA

You may recall from my first long post that when a child is made a dependent of the court, any and all biological parents are told to notify the court as to whether they have Native American heritage. The burden of finding out the extent of that heritage, which tribe the heritage is from, and notifying the tribe(s) that could possibly be involved with the case lies with the court and county counsel. If either or both parents do not know if they have Native American heritage, the court and county counsel must notify all federally recognized tribes.

ICWA’s notice requirements are incredibly strict. These requirements are set in order for the tribe to be able to make a determination of which child may or may not qualify for membership within that tribe; and therefore, the notice must be “complete, timely, and accurate.”

The California Court’s ICWA Notice Information Checklist details the requirements that the law sets out for county counsel and the court in order to comply with federal guidelines. The notice must contain information about the child’s relatives “as far back as great-grandparents,” at minimum, which includes a duty to interview all extended relatives that are available to provide the names of these ancestors to the tribe. The most detailed list of requirements is found in the form that county counsel must fill out to provide notice; the information, at its most complete, would have:

All names known of the Indian child’s biological parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, or Indian custodians, including maiden, married and former names or aliases, as well as their current and former addresses, birthdates, places of birth and death, tribal enrollment numbers, and any other identifying information, if known.

That, of course, is an incredible amount of information, and it may be difficult for even the average person—without any Native American heritage—to provide similar information about their ancestors. But, in the past, cases have been overturned on appeal because of “missing middle names, misspellings,” and “reasonably” available information.

But perhaps the most difficult requirement that is currently in California and federal law is that the “court and child welfare department have an affirmative and continuing duty to seek to obtain th[e information above] throughout the life of the case where they know of or have reason to know that the child is or may be an Indian child.” (emphasis added). This means that the adoptive parents of a child who could have Native American heritage—even if the parents themselves have terminated their parental rights—could still be subject to ICWA law, and tribal jurisdiction could still trump their adoptive rights that could be found at any time in the child’s case. While this is an example of California law (see Cal. Welf. and Inst. Code §224.3), similar laws exist in many states throughout the United States or just comply uniformly with ICWA’s exact wording. (For another specific example, see Colorado’s Title 19, Children’s Code §19-1-126; for rote compliance with ICWA, see New Mexico’s §32A-1-14 (2016).

Brackeen v Zinke (2018) and Current Controversy

But what does notice have to do with Brackeen?

Continue reading “Notice, Courts, and Culture: ICWA in the Modern Era”

Trauma Systems Therapy Training: What Social Services Needs to be Utilizing, But Isn’t

Children in foster care are exposed to many adverse experiences and are heavily impacted by their trauma. As discussed in my previous posts, trauma affects kids, leads to behavioral problems, and can result both in school discipline and in parents failing to understand the source of misbehavior- which results in placement instability. A foster care system that incorporates policy and training meant to deal with the effects of trauma can better support youth and improve their life outcomes.

In an attempt to reduce placement instability and promote the child’s well-being researchers and people involved in foster care have begun to move toward an approach of trauma-informed care. In this post, I will explain why California should use the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AEC) Trauma Systems Therapy for Foster Care curriculum to implement a standardized system of trauma training throughout the child welfare system. I will do this by examining recent actions by the California legislature and demonstrating why using the AEC materials is the best approach we currently have available.

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