What Gavin Newsom Might Mean for California’s Child Welfare System

Gavin Newsom
Newly elected California Governor Gavin Newsom previously served as lieutenant governor for the state and as mayor of San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Newsom campaign.

As expected, Gavin Newsom (D) was elected as governor of California on a Tuesday night by a relatively large margin over Republican candidate John Cox.

Many in the advocacy community are now waiting to see what his election will mean for children’s issues in the state, including the child welfare field. Newsom did not appear often in public debate with other candidates on the campaign trail, and only once with Republican candidate Cox after the primary.

He gave little indication of his thoughts on children’s issues during the campaign, opting instead to focus on hot-button issues like housing, homelessness and healthcare, though Newsom did prominently tout his goal for universal preschool and early education support in campaign ads.

Back in May, Newsom did write some thoughts about child welfare, children’s health, juvenile justice and other children’s topics in a questionnaire we sent him as part of The Chronicle of Social Change’s gubernatorial forum.

In it, he called eliminating child poverty his administration’s “north star.”

Newsom also said he has a two-part plan to tackle high California’s child poverty rate — the state currently has the nation’s highest child poverty rate at 22.8 percent. In Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, those numbers are as high as 28 percent.

Newsom wrote that he would advocate for family nurse visits for low-income families, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-earning families and offer universal access to affordable, high-quality child care. He would also support families “by launching college savings accounts for every incoming kindergartener, guarantee two free years of community college tuition, and set California on track to generate 500,000 earn-and-learn apprenticeships by 2029 to create a new vocational education pipeline of high-skill workers.”

Newsom is also notable for his familiarity with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the idea that trauma early in life can lead to high risk for poor health outcomes later in life and justice-system involvement.

“First and foremost, we know that the ACEs research shows that incidents of childhood trauma impact children for a lifetime, including setting them up for disproportionate interactions with the criminal justice system,” Newsom wrote in response to a question about the role of child trauma for those young people in the juvenile justice system. “In addition to the early childhood interventions I’ve mentioned above in order to prevent ACEs, we need to recognize trauma in our systems of support for children and students.”

Newsom also pledged to take a prevention-based approach to working youth in the juvenile justice system.

“I will also continue to be an advocate for prevention programs that help at-risk youth stay out of the criminal justice system, as well as rehabilitation and diversion programs that assist non-violent criminals become contributing members of society,” he said.

The governor-elect also vowed “to better support the children in our child welfare system, from cradle to career, including a better recognition of foster children’s needs in our child care and public education systems.” He has mentioned support of the current California Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which offers additional resources to low-income students, foster youth and English-language learners, who face persistent achievement gaps.

Several important child welfare questions remain. The federal government passed landmark child legislation in February that will allow states to spend foster care dollars on prevention services to keep families out of the foster care system, the Family First Services and Prevention Act. The law also limits federal funds available for placement of youth in group homes and other so-called congregate care settings.

California has a robust reform effort underway already — the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR) — aimed at reducing the state’s use of congregate care. The new federal law has created some tension with the state’s child welfare community around how it will clash with the state’s ongoing reform effort.

States will be allowed to seek up to two years of delay on the congregate care restrictions, with the caveat that they will be frozen out of the foster care prevention funds during that delay. The federal Department of Health and Human Services has asked states to indicate if they plan to take a delay by the end of this week, though that is not a hard deadline.

Whether the state chooses to take advantage of the opportunities of the Family First Act will perhaps be the first big child welfare question for the new administration.

The second may well be the future of CCR.

The California governor has a strong hand in determining the state’s budget, which defines support for many ongoing child welfare programs, including the state’s ongoing foster care reforms. In the past few years, that has meant large efforts to fine-tune CCR as well as substantial investments, like the nearly $140 million the state has pledged over the past three and a half years to improve foster parent recruitment and retention.

Although most parts of CCR formally began in 2017, the effort has been in the works for at least five years before that. Counties have often been vexed by thorny implementation issues that may still need considerable attention.

“There have been enormous legislative changes in the past three to four years and just putting them into place will be challenging,” said retired Judge Leonard Edwards, who sits on the state’s Child Welfare Council.

For Susanna Kniffen, senior director of child welfare policy at Children Now, sees two child welfare issues that the new administration should tackle in the coming year. A high-profile plan to prevent placement disruptions and the criminalization of foster youth by creating a 24/7 hotline and mobile response for children, youth and caregivers in the child welfare system was vetoed by Gov. Brown last year. Kniffen would like to see the Newsom include it in next year’s budget.

Kniffen said she would also like to see a much greater investment from the Newsom administration when it comes to child care support for foster parents. A lack of child care for foster children results in many caregivers being unable to keep children in their homes because of the cost of care or because they are unable to get time off from work, she said.

“Abused and neglect children face additional trauma and disrupted attachments when we move them from home to home searching for a family that can meet their needs,” Kniffen wrote in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “Ensuring access to child care for all children in foster care who need it must be a top priority for the new administration.”

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1211 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.