by Lewis Cohen
The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), was very active and successful in California’s now concluded 2015 legislative session. Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation sponsored by NCYL to improve the state’s Foster Youth Services Program for students in foster care and increased funding for the program, in the state’s budget, by 67 per cent. The governor also signed three bills that were part of a NCYL legislative package to address the misuse of psychotropic drugs on children in foster care. Finally, he signed legislation sponsored by a coalition including NCYL, that will allow 20,000 prisoners serving lengthy sentences in state prison for crimes committed while age 22 or younger to have the opportunity to receive a youth offender parole after serving between 15 and 25 years.
AB 854, authored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, uses the expertise and experience of the Foster Youth Services Program (FYS) to ensure the state’s new educational funding formula fulfills its promise to children in foster care. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is a groundbreaking law that changed the way education is funded. LCFF increases local flexibility in spending education dollars while increasing accountability, particularly for improving the education outcomes of designated student sub-groups, including for the first time, students in foster care.
Students in foster care are one of the most vulnerable and academically underserved student groups in California schools. A recent statewide study found that foster youth had the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate of any student group in the state.
The FYS program is uniquely situated to support interagency collaboration and capacity building, both at the system and individual student level. AB 854 will enable FYS Coordinators to improve coordination among the various state agencies supporting foster children. FYS Coordinators can support school districts’ successful implementation of LCFF for foster youth by leveraging their knowledge of foster youth issues, their expertise in navigating the education and child welfare worlds, and their experience working with the various county and local stakeholders that are active in a foster youth’s life.
AB 854 also expands the definition of foster youth under the FYS program to conform to the broader definition used under LCFF, making thousands of additional children eligible for the program. With the passage of AB 854, all students in foster care across California will be eligible for locally coordinated education services and supports that will help them to reach their college and career dreams. The state budget increased funding for FYS from $10 million dollars annually to $25 million to help cover the costs of supporting newly eligible students.
Governor Brown also signed three bills sponsored by NCYL as part of a package to reduce the misuse of psychotropic drugs on children in foster care. The three bills (SB 238, SB 319, and SB 484) are part of a comprehensive approach to the overmedication of foster youth. SB 238 was authored by Senator Holly Mitchell and SB 319 and 484 were authored by Senator Jim Beall. A fourth bill SB 253 remains subject to negotiations between the Administration and that bill’s author Senator William Monning.
Specifically, the bills: Provide for training, data collection, and systems for identifying high risk practices; Provide public health nurses increased access to medical records to improve monitoring of foster children prescribed psychotropic medications; and Identify the group homes that are most over-reliant on the riskiest psychotropic medication treatments and require these homes to develop corrective action plans that are monitored for progress.
In 2011, the Federal Government Accounting Office issued a report finding numerous problems in the use of psychotropic drugs on foster children. According to the report nearly one in four children in foster care are receiving powerful psychotropic drugs. Of all children taking psychotropic medications in California 52% are given antipsychotics which have risk factors that can lead to life-long disabilities such as tremors, obesity, and diabetes.
The legislative effort in California is the most comprehensive effort in the United States to date. The bills signed by the Governor today will improve the handling of psychotropic drugs by everyone involved in the process while increasing the amount of information available to and oversight of prescribers, caregivers and the courts. NCYL remains hopeful that the Governor will eventually sign SB 253 in order to strengthen the court process for authorizing the use of these powerful drugs on vulnerable children in foster care.”
Finally, the Governor signed Senator Loni Hancock’s SB 261, co-sponsored by NCYL and the Anti Recidivism Coalition. Under current law (SB 260, 2012), certain inmates, who received a lengthy or life sentence for a crime committed under the age of 18, are eligible for a youth offender parole hearing after serving a lengthy sentence, often more than two decades in prison. In a youth offender parole hearing, the Board of Prison Hearings considers, with great weight, the diminished culpability of youth compared to adults, the hallmark features of youth, and the subsequent growth and increased maturity of the eligible individual while in prison.
Beginning next year, Senate Bill 261 (2015) will make certain inmates similarly eligible for a youth offender parole hearing that were under the age of 23 when they committed a crime for which they received a lengthy or life sentence. There is no mandate or guarantee of parole, the bill excludes individuals sentenced to life without possibility of parole, as well as those sentenced under the Three Strikes Law, One Strike Law, and “Jessica’s Law.” The bill also excludes any individual who commits certain crimes in prison after turning 18 years of age.
SB 260 and SB 261 hold a youth offenders accountable for the crimes they committed by requiring them to serve a lengthy prison sentence before becoming eligible for a youth offender parole hearing. However, it provides them with an opportunity to work towards rehabilitation and parole after serving a lengthy prison sentence. Science, law, and common sense support the appropriateness of youth offender parole hearings for young adults who offended between the age of 18 and 23.