Obama’s New Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Proposals for 2016

Last week, we published our annual chart of youth-related spending in the president’s budget, which subscribers can access here.

Youth Services Insider wanted to follow up with some notes on ideas expressed in this budget that President Obama had not previously proposed. There are a few:

Extending Support for Aging Out Foster Youths to 23…Sort of

The proposal: The budget proposes to allow the Title IV-E agencies that have extended foster care to age 21 to use existing Chafee Foster Care Independence Program funds to serve young people formerly in foster care through age 23. 

Notes: States can use their portion of funds from the $140 million John Chafee Foster Care Independence Program to assist youth who have aged out of foster care.

Right now, the funds are for youth who have aged out, and the eligible age range for support is 14 through 21. Obama’s proposal would simply tick that up for states that had a federally reimbursed foster care extension to age 21.

We could be swayed, but YSI isn’t sure this is a logical leap to make. The point of extending foster care is not to start the clock on transitioning to adulthood at age 21, it’s to make that transition to age 21 more gradual. Further, not every 18-year-old in those states is going to stay in foster care.

A separate Chafee program, Educational Training Vouchers (ETV), provides $47 million each year to support college costs for current or former foster youths. The upper age threshold on that program is already age 23.

Building Community Trust in the Justice System

The proposal: This new program will provide grants and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal courts and juvenile and criminal justice agencies to support innovative efforts to improve perceptions of fairness in the juvenile and criminal justice systems and build community trust in these institutions. The 2016 Budget proposes $20,000,000 for this program.

The language in this proposal tells you everything about how delicate and taboo a topic it is. “Innovative efforts to improve perceptions of fairness?” Sounds like a solicitation for a PR firm or a marketing campaign. But drop “perceptions of” out of this, and Press Secretary Josh Earnest is answering questions like, “Does the president believe the justice system is not fair?”

At any rate, if this project sees the light of day in appropriations, it will be interesting to see what courts do with the funding. One suggestion from YSI: talk to Lisa Thurau at Strategies for Youth. Her mom-and-pop outfit has been traversing the country, training police departments on interacting with juvenile offenders, so she is well-prepared for tough conversations on the subject.

Today’s At-Risk Youth, Tomorrow’s Cop

The proposal: The 2016 Budget includes additional resources to pilot a program for at-risk youth to explore careers in law enforcement. The Department of Labor will continue to coordinate closely with the Department of Justice and other relevant Agencies in carrying out the Ex-Offender program.

Notes: This little doozy was buried in the language related to the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders program. So, presumably, the idea is actually training former juvenile offenders for careers in policing.

If that is the case, this is a new one to YSI. We have never heard of a program or initiative aimed at helping former offenders become police, and a cursory search of the old interwebs didn’t yield results. You’d have to think that for this to work on a pilot level, the local law enforcement agencies would have to agree to ignore the records of participants in it.

Oversight on Group Care

The proposal: This account includes new investments to promote family-based care and increase oversight on the use of congregate care…

Notes: It is a pretty vague line that refers to the Foster Care and Permanency account overseen by the Children’s Bureau, a division of the Administration on Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Since the proposal is not expressed with a request for appropriations, and regards oversight, it appears the president is just asking for additional funds for the Children’s Bureau staff to step up monitoring of congregate care.

If that is the case, he may well get what he wants. The Senate President Pro Tempore, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who also chairs the Finance Committee, has a shared interest in the issue.

Hatch introduced a bill in late 2013 that went way further than just oversight on congregate care. His bill would have cut off federal match money after 15 days for children under 13 who are placed in congregate care. And for all foster youths placed in child care institutions or emergency group settings, the bill would require someone from the child welfare agency to appear in court to demonstrate that efforts to locate potential homes for the child were made.

On the House side, Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) offered a bill last summer that would limit federal funding not only for congregate care, but for foster care in general. Langevin’s bill would halt federal support for foster care after a child was in foster care for three years, and would cut off federal support for group care after one year.

That course of action borrows from a proposal by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Indigent Defense

The proposal: This new program will provide funding and other resources to support changes in state and local criminal court practices related to indigent defense; ensuring that no person faces potential time in jail without first having the aid of a lawyer with the time, ability and resources to present an effective defense, as required by the United States Constitution. The 2016 Budget requests $5,400,000 for this program.

Notes: The assurance of a lawyer for all juvenile offenders has been guaranteed since the 1967 Supreme Court decision In re Gault. A lawyer with “time, ability and resources” is another ball of wax.

YSI‘s best sense is that some systems take this seriously, and others really don’t. One of the clear lessons in the now-infamous Luzerne County Juvenile Court scandal is that if a court wants to get around providing lawyers for juveniles, it’s pretty damn easy.

One thing about that case: the public didn’t really care until it became about money laundering. If those judges were railroading lawyer-less juveniles into residential placements without any fiscal motive, they’d still be doing it.

Now, what can be done with $5.4 million? Hard to predict. We would guess some conferences, maybe a technical assistance center paired with a small pilot project.

Supporting Community College Students

The proposal: Funds are provided to create a new partnership with states to make two years of community college free for responsible students by helping them waive tuition in high-quality programs while promoting key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college.

Notes: This is the youth-related line that got the most attention. And certainly such a proposal would make it much easier for students to afford a four-year degree, especially if the last two years are spent at a state or private university.

Here’s who it would not help: the thousands of students who are ill-prepared for community college, test into remedial coursework and bomb out before they ever really get started.

A good friend of YSI who ran community colleges for years said this is the ugly truth nobody wants to face. There is a big group of youth (many with time in foster care or the juvenile system) who show up to community college only to be told that they won’t see actual college credits for a year. And if they stay to finish the remedial work ordered for them by the college, they use up a year of student loan support.

Obama’s plan is a good one for “responsible students,” but the issue of remediation is something Congress and the president should take up as well.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor John Kelly.

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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.