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Saturday, April 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

New California Program to Help Kids

SACRAMENTO (CN) - California will create a Bureau of Children's Justice to protect children by focusing on foster youths, elementary school truancy, human trafficking and discrimination in education.

The idea for the Bureau of Children's Justice originated with the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris more than a year ago and was unveiled last week.

"We simply cannot let down our most vulnerable children today, then lock them up tomorrow and act surprised," Harris said. "The Bureau of Children's Justice will continue our smart on crime approach by addressing the root causes of crime, including our broken foster-care system, and making certain that California's children receive full protection under the law and equal opportunities to succeed."

The bureau will be funded through existing resources in the California Department of Justice and will be staffed by five full-time attorneys. It will receive additional support from experts across the department on a range of issues, including civil rights, education, child welfare, identity theft and human trafficking, according to Kristin Ford, press secretary for the AG's office.

The children's bureau will expand the resources of the Department of Justice and will enforce civil and criminal laws to hold those who prey on children accountable, Ford said.

One of the bureau's first priorities will be to focus on the issues surrounding foster kids by looking at enforcement gaps in the foster-care system and ensuring that government agencies are held accountable to the children entrusted in their care.

Child protective services nationwide are notoriously underfunded; caseworkers often have hundreds of children to look after.

Harris, who is seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer, sent a letter to officials in all 58 California counties, informing them of the new bureau and outlining their legal responsibilities to foster youth. Citing disturbing statistics, Harris said that California must do better for its foster youth.

"Generally, students in foster care are older for their grade level than other student groups; drop out at a higher rate than other at-risk student groups; only 50 percent pass the California high school exit exam in grade 10; about 33 percent change schools at least once during the school year (at four times the rate of the low-socioeconomic status or general populations); and 20 percent are classified with a disability," Harris wrote.

The children's bureau will also combat the problem of elementary student truancy.

"There's a significant correlation between elementary school truancy and involvement with the criminal justice system later in life: truant and chronically absent elementary-schoolers are much less likely to graduate high school, and students who do not complete high school are more likely to become either perpetrators or victims of crime," Ford said.

Harris issued statewide reports in 2013 and 2014 on elementary truancy, which stated that 250,000 elementary school kids are chronically absent, only 17 percent of chronically absent kindergarten and first-graders read at grade level by the end of third grade, and those kids who do not read at third-grade level are four times more likely to drop out of school.

Nearly 90 percent of the elementary students who miss 36 days or more of school per year are believed to be low-income. The reports indicated that 37 percent of African-American elementary students were truant, the highest of any subgroup and 15 percentage points higher than the rate for all students.

"The bureau is designing new pilot programs in partnership with UC Santa Barbara to reduce truancy and improve educational outcomes for children and continue to work with local school districts to improve attendance and address chronic school absence," Ford said.

Other core priorities for the children's bureau will include discrimination and inequities in education, human trafficking of vulnerable youth, and childhood trauma and exposure to violence.

"The creation of this Bureau of Children's Justice is a smart strategy that ensures our most vulnerable are protected today while also preventing crime and violence in the future. We are eager to work with the attorney general to break the cycle of violence by helping traumatized children heal," said Esta Soler, president and founder of Futures Without Violence.

Harris also announced that the California Department of Justice was one of three state agencies accepted by the U.S. Department of Justice to be part of its national Defending Childhood Initiative.

The initiative will screen children for trauma and develop ways to address the problem. Studies have shown that children exposed to trauma are more likely to commit suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, and struggle in school.

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