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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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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Families and the National Foster Home Shortage

There are not enough foster homes in the United States, and there haven’t been enough for a long time. When I first started researching the state of foster care, I encountered article after article about the national foster home shortage. The takeaway seemed to be this: there is a really serious trend of more kids needing care and fewer foster homes nationwide. While the data does show this to be true, all the articles seem to be missing a pretty crucial piece of information. If there aren’t enough homes, where are the kids going? I reached a lot of dead ends trying to answer this question. What I eventually found is arguably the most important part of this story: the foster home shortage may have eventually led to an increased focus on placing kids with their relatives.

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Psychotropic Medication for Foster Youth: How Early Prescription may be Linked to Adult Substance Abuse and Drug Charges

My name is Willa Mankins and I am currently a second-year law student at Santa Clara University. I was born in Virginia, but I have lived in California for the last 10 years and fallen in love with the state. I am the first member of my family to go to law school, and I picked this career path to be an advocate and have my ideas and thoughts be heard on a larger scale.  

Before law school, I received two degrees during my four years at Mills College: a B.S. in Biopsychology and a B.A. in English Literature. My degree in Biopsychology helped me to understand that what happens to us mentally always affects us physically. In particular, I learned about various psychological disorders and became interested, in particular, in the causes and treatments for traumas and disorders diagnosed in children. Foster children are a prime example of how early trauma can result in permanent mental health challenges. For example, foster children experience PTSD, depression, and anxiety at 4 times the rate of the general population. These diagnoses affect every aspect of their lives and, unfortunately, can lead to contact with the juvenile justice system.

During this semester, I am hoping to educate myself, and provide information for others, on the mental trauma that foster children undergo from being in the system. I am driven to understand and explore how the foster system we have created, which is intended to benefit and protect these children, is instead perpetuating generations of mentally scarred and substance-dependent youths. I want to use this opportunity to try to identify the flaws in the services currently provided in California that create a lack of access to mental health services and result in a pattern of substance abuse in foster youth.

While the foster care system was created with the best interests of the children in mind, it (like all government programs) needs to be critiqued and updated to ensure it actually services the population it is intended to protect. I am excited to provide an analysis on the current system that may lead to future improvements and create more dialogue about this issue in our community.

Propagating Mental Illness in the California Jail System

Approximately 71% of jail inmates in California are pretrial detainees. Pretrial detention is supposed to be limited to individuals who pose a risk to public safety or are unlikely to return for their court date. About 17% of people entering the nation’s local jails for pretrial detention meet the criteria for serious mental illness. In many communities, people with mental illnesses remain in jail for considerably longer than those without mental illnesses, despite facing similar charges and posing no more of a flight risk or danger to society. Pretrial incarceration of the mentally ill results in a reduced chance of recovery and stability in the community and is a large cost on taxpayers. In some areas, pretrial inmates wait months for court-ordered mental health services, which can be detrimental to their recovery. As of 2015, Santa Clara County Jail reported having six full-time psychiatrists for the approximately 1,300 inmates with mental disabilities. There are about 139 beds for inmates with severe mental disabilities. What happens to the other 1,161 inmates in need of mental health treatment? What impact does pretrial incarceration have on their mental health? What can we do to save taxpayers money and avoid propagating mental illness in the criminal justice system? These are the questions I will be attempting to answer this semester in Criminal Law and Policy.

My name is Arielle Hostetler and I am a Bay Area native. At the University of California-Santa Cruz, I studied the intersection of psychology and law. There I learned that the justice system had the ability to create a more equal society because it came into contact with the people who needed the most help. But, instead, the justice system has failed on its promise to control crime, reduce suffering, and rehabilitate. Before law school I worked at the Santa Cruz Public Defender’s Office, the International Rescue Committee, the Peace Corps in China, and the Atlanta office of the American Civil Liberties Union. I am currently a 2L at Santa Clara University School of Law, where I hope to use my real-world experience and academic background to effect change in the criminal justice system.