One-On-One with Karen Bass, State Majority Leader, 47th Assembly District
Recent studies, according to Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass, indicate that in California, disturbing percentages of foster care youth who graduate from the system at age 18 face increased homelessness, unemployment and incarceration unless corrective measures are taken. “Within two to four years after aging out of foster care, over 50 percent of former foster youth are unemployed, 40 percent are homeless, and 20 percent will be incarcerated. If we do not take care of these children as they exit the Foster Care System, this can result in their future involvement in the prison system.
The average young person does not leave home and become fully self-sufficient until age 26, yet at age 18 the state of California expects foster youth to become entirely independent without any assistance,” she wrote in a recent press release. For her part, Assemblywoman Bass co-authored a bill (AB 845) to appropriate $10.5 million to the Department of Social Services to supplement funding for the Transitional Housing for Foster Youth Program, which was rejected in June by Senate Republicans. On July 19, the California State Assembly authorized a 5 percent budget increase for foster care homes and group homes, which was being debated in the Senate at Final Call press time.
Assemblywoman Bass, Chair of the Select Committee on Foster Care, spoke to Final Call Staff Writer Charlene Muhammad about the bill’s status, the plight of foster youth and reasons for the conditions awaiting them upon emancipation.
FINAL CALL (FC): Given the bill’s rejection, what alternatives are there for reducing the homelessness among foster youth?
Assemblywoman Karen Bass (KB): I am very hopeful that in spite of the fact that they defeated the bill, that money for transitional housing for foster youth will be put in the budget, which is in its final stages right now.
FC: Can our communities develop programs that mimic what works for the percentages of emancipated youth that fare well, and probe factors such as whether certain conditions exist in some foster homes versus others? Does the success vary by neighborhood or city– Compton or South Central compared to West Los Angeles or Beverly Hills?
KB: One of the things is that the majority of foster youth in our city are concentrated in South Los Angeles, but one of the fundamental problems in the Foster Care System in California is that every county has a slightly different system–58 counties and 58 ways to deliver services. An example is that in some counties, there is a bigger emphasis on placing young people with relatives; in others, a bigger emphasis is on getting them adopted right away. In some cities the number is not so high and they are able to provide better services. Los Angeles has more youth in foster care than many states combined and we have significantly reduced the number of youth in foster care. The positive thing about having one system is that we can take all of the best practices and make a state system. The negative is that every county is different and we don’t necessarily want to dictate to them. I would suggest that we’re too far in direction of letting everybody do what they want to do.
FC: To what do you attribute the high rates of unemployment of emancipated foster youth?
KB: First and foremost, the fact that a large percentage of foster youth don’t graduate high school. Second, the way you find jobs is not so much by looking in newspapers, but it’s through who you know; your network of family members. Many have been displaced so many times that they don’t have a network like most of us do. One young woman has been in foster care since she was two and moved 66 times. That’s an extreme number, but even if she moved half that, what kind of social network could she possibly have?
FC: How could anyone have moved a child that many times?
KB: Foster youth are not allowed, as most children when they hit adolescent years, to act out. Most children can be obnoxious; it’s part of growing up. If they act out they just get kicked out. We don’t do that to our children. We try to do everything we can to modify their behavior.
FC: And the incarceration rate?
KB: It’s the same, especially for Black males. Many are in group homes, and if you’re in a fist fight, the police are called. Young children in the foster care system are not allowed the normal stages of development that all of our children go through and you can imagine that many of them grow up very angry. If you’re angry to begin with, you get into situations where you wind up crossing over from the foster system to the juvenile justice system.
FC: Do you believe that this crisis can be averted?
KB: Yes it can be averted. Some issues we need to look at are that the number of youth in foster care exploded with the introduction of crack cocaine. This was the first time during a drug epidemic where women used the drug almost equal to men–in prior drug trends, that didn’t happen. Twenty years into the crack epidemic, the number one reason today for children being removed from the home is child neglect, not necessarily child abuse. Any time one moves a child from the home, that child is thoroughly traumatized.
The good news is that the foster care system has been studied to death. Everybody knows what’s wrong; what’s needed, but unless we have a groundswell of support; of people calling, faxing, emailing, and unless we have political will from legislators, nothing will change. I believe we have both of those things required to change this.
FC: Thank you.