Take a look at the committees that California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond (D) requested to be on when he took office in January, and you’ll get a sense of his priorities. They include Education, Health, Human Services, and the Select Committee on Homelessness.
“That’s exactly where I would expect him to be, knowing him,” said Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services.
After a couple of decades working with nonprofits serving children and youth, as well as stints on the West Contra Costa County school board and the Richmond City Council, Thurmond says that in his new role as Assemblymember for District 15, he is “advocating for those who have the greatest needs.”
“I’m here for the least of us,” he told an audience at a Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California meeting on a recent Wednesday in Sacramento.
In his first months in office, Thurmond has proposed legislation to establish school-based mental health services and to address chronic absenteeism of children in grades K-3.
He is a bright star for children’s advocates and the service providers he worked alongside, most recently as senior director of community and government relations at Lincoln Child Center in Oakland.
Thurmond has emerged as a leader for the youth services field in what some youth advocates in California see as an era of austerity and erosion of the social safety net under Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown.
“There’s been a disinvestment in children’s services,” says Patrick Gardner, executive director of the Young Minds Advocacy Project. “During the recession, people assumed children were doing all right and there were other areas that needed more attention, and I think the result has been that children have suffered…We need a champion for children, and I think Tony has both the background and the heart to do it.”
Thurmond, who chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, said he supports the Continuum of Care Reform Plan (CCR) developed over the past three years by the California Department of Social Services, providers, and advocates.
“The result will be better outcomes for kids,” Thurmond said.
The CCR report presented by CDSS to the legislature in January outlines 19 recommendations for transforming the delivery of child welfare services, including the establishment of a Core Practice Model to create consistency throughout the state.
“I came this close to being in foster care,” he said, holding his finger and thumb nearly together. After his mother died when he was six, he was sent to Philadelphia to live with a cousin he’d never met. “It was kinship care but we didn’t call it that back then.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Temple University, Thurmond got his first job as a social worker in Philadelphia. “All I ever wanted to do was be a helping professional.”
But that first job seemed to him like putting a “Band-aid” on bigger underlying issues facing the clients he served, such as long-term poverty, substance abuse, and lack of access to education.
“I wanted to learn how to work to change systems,” he said, so he completed dual Masters Degrees in Law and Social Policy and Social Work at Bryn Mawr College.
At a recent briefing in Sacramento held by the California Program on Access to Care (CPAC) at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Thurmond expressed his support for the restoration of cuts to MediCal benefits and rates. He described his proposed Assembly Bill 1025, which would establish school-based mental health programs that would largely be funded by MediCal.
AB 1025 would establish 30 pilot programs providing school-based mental health services throughout the state. The legislation calls for mental health support to be offered in schools to students who have experienced trauma or other challenges.
Naming education his highest priority, Thurmond has also proposed AB 1014, a truancy prevention bill to address chronic absenteeism for kids in grades K-3 by funding outreach workers who would do home visits and work with families to address whatever is keeping children from going to school.
“Education is my top issue,” he said. “We want to help those kids get back in school so they learn to read by third grade so they don’t drop out and enter the juvenile justice system.”
“From my perspective based on my experience at Lincoln Child Center, home visiting is one of the most effective ways to get kids back in school.”
Reductions to the state’s safety net are a continuing concern for Thurmond. In his remarks to CPAC, he noted that despite acknowledging recent improvements to the state’s fiscal situation, Governor Brown “has talked as a consistent theme about our need to prepare for the future and to save money.”
“We all know,” said Thurmond, “that we have been for the last decade dealing with the great recession and tough cuts…and tightening our belts.”
He recalled the night in 2008 when he was sworn in as a member of the school board. Despite his “excitement to help kids,” the first decision he was called upon to make just moments after being sworn in was “a vote to close ten schools because the state budget was so bad.”
“And that has been the climate and the culture,” he added, “in every single sector including our health safety net and our social services safety net. Now is the time to make restorations.”
“Everybody’s telling us what can’t be done, and that’s been the narrative for way too long,” Thurmond said in the Planned Parenthood meeting. “What is the cost we pay if we don’t take this action?”
Noting his choice of committees, not the most sought after by new members, Thurmond said simply, “I came up here to do work.”
Melinda Clemmons is a reporter and marketing manager for The Chronicle of Social Change.