Aug. 25, 2017: CHRONICLE OF SOCIAL CHANGE - Needing Foster Homes, California Seeks to Relax Rules on Criminal Convictions

August 25, 2017

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by Holden Slattery

California is moving forward with a pair of initiatives designed to increase its supply of foster parents, while grappling with sweeping reforms to its foster care system.

A big part of that effort is a bill now under consideration in California’s state legislature that would reduce the number of crimes that bar a person from becoming a foster parent.

Under current law, felony convictions and some misdemeanor offenses—such as willful harm to a child or sexual abuse—automatically disqualify a person from becoming a caregiver for a foster child.

The proposed law would enable child welfare agencies to exempt some nonviolent felony offense within the past seven years and most misdemeanor convictions within the past five years if they have “substantial and convincing evidence” that the person convicted is “of present good character to justify granting an exemption,” according to an analysis of the bill. Felony convictions for child abuse or sexual abuse would still be non-exemptible under the proposed law.

By easing the restrictions for criminal convictions, Senate Bill 213, introduced by State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would help California to increase the pool of foster parents and relatives who could take in foster children. The state is currently in the midst of implementing a series of new laws known as Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) that seek to place foster children in family settings instead of in group homes.

CCR has placed pressure on the state’s foster care system to add more placements with foster parents and relative caregivers even as the children in care across the state has increased. Over the past five years, the number of kids in California’s foster care system has increased by nearly 5 percent, according to the state’s data.

“I think the state Department of Social Services has to work really in concert with counties to primarily make sure that we’re not erecting barriers and making it more difficult for counties to recruit and for families to step up,” Mitchell said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.

The bill has faced opposition over the potential cost to the state, including $600,000 in one-time costs and more expenditures toward workload increases for CDSS workers to handle appeals hearings for caregivers. The bill was suspended by the appropriations committee this week, but Mitchell will continue to push for it before the legislative session ends on Sept. 15, according to a Mitchell staffer.

The barriers that Mitchell wants taken have been in place for many years. A list of non-exemptible crimes in all states was created through the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. Before that law was enacted, California had its own list of non-exemptible crimes that was stricter than the Walsh Act, said Susan Abrams, policy director for the Children’s Law Center, which is sponsoring the bill.

The Walsh Act was overlaid on top of California’s existing background check procedures, “creating a complex set of overlapping and unduly restrictive rules and exemptions,” according to a bill analysis.

Senate Bill 213 would bring California’s list in line with the shorter list established by the Walsh Act, Abrams said.

The bill would also simplify the process for waiving exemptible crimes like misdemeanors from more than five years ago and nonviolent felonies from more than seven years ago.

Under current law, when a prospective foster parent has a past criminal conviction that is exemptible, social workers must review documents from the conviction, which can mean waiting for an agency in another county or state to provide the documents before allowing kids to be placed with someone.

In one instance, Abrams said, a man had a 20-year-old conviction for check fraud and it took a year for the state of Michigan to provide California with the information about that case. Meanwhile, the man’s nephew was living in a group home, when his uncle could have been his relative caregiver.

Under SB 213, these agencies would have the power to grant exemptions after simply reviewing the person’s criminal record from the Department of Justice—without the state or municipality’s documentation of that incident.

Mitchell said state lawmakers need to be more specific on how they define criminal records while attempting to keep children safe. Not allowing children to be placed with family members or potential foster parents based on an old criminal conviction that is not relevant to child safety can cause a child harm, she said.

“For me, it really is working to figure out ways in which we prepare ourselves and the state for CCR to kick in where we close group homes,” Mitchell said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to have a viable stock of foster care homes to be ready and available, and so we’re figuring out how to remove some of the structural barriers and this is one example.”

Under CCR, another way the state may be looking to increase the number of foster parents is by making home inspections less stringent. Every foster parent—and now all relative caregivers— must meet certain safety standards in their homes.

Over the past year, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) developed a revised “Home Environment Checklist” for foster parents – now referred to as “resource families.” In it, the state outlines a list of minimum requirements for safety that caregivers must address before they can accept foster children into their homes. A couple examples: no windows or mirrors in the home should be cracked or broken, and every child should have her own bed.

Some advocates say the new rules, which will be finalized this year, are less restrictive than past versions as a result of the state’s emphasis on recruiting more foster families, particularly relative caregivers. The Association of Community Human Service Agencies, a membership organization that represents the interests of foster family agencies and other providers, has been pressuring the state to adopt more rigorous safety standards.

For example, the state requires every resource family to complete first aid training prior to taking in a foster child, yet the state does not require a resource parent to have a first aid kit in the home. The state also does not mandate that caregivers have fire extinguishers available and it lacks specific details on how hot water should be when it comes out of the faucet.

Monica Smith, a director of the foster family programs for the Penny Lane Centers agency in northwest Los Angeles County, believes that the state’s failure to flag some safety concerns presents a dangerous risk.

“It’s kind of scary,” Smith said about the proposed safety standards. “Accidents do happen. But it’s different when there’s a foster child in your home. We’re responsible for somebody else’s child.”

As the state continues to implement reforms to its foster care system, adding more caregivers to its child welfare system remains a key objective.

Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story.