Back in 2015, when serving as the attorney general of California, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris decided to make justice for children a priority of her office’s work. She wanted to focus on children who are often marginalized, like those in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, disabled and immigrant children, and those living in poverty.
“She had an interest in, ‘how do we reframe the role of a prosecutor as thinking much more long-term about how do we create safe and thriving communities?’ And you can’t have that conversation without children,” said Jill Habig, who worked under Harris for many years, first as a special assistant attorney general, and eventually as her deputy campaign manager and policy director during Harris’ 2016 Senate run.
Harris developed the Bureau of Children’s Justice (BCJ), which has “broad jurisdiction under state and federal law to investigate and enforce the legal rights of children,” according to the Office of the Attorney General. In the four years since its creation, the bureau has launched a number of investigations into county child welfare and probation departments, school districts and private schools.
The senator’s track record on youth and families is not without some points of criticism among advocates. In a recent report by The Intercept, several victims of abuse at the hands of Catholic priests say the San Francisco district attorney’s office stopped cooperating with them after Harris was elected in 2004.
Harris has also caught flack for an education-focused initiative she implemented while serving as the DA in San Francisco, wherein she promised to prosecute parents whose children were chronically absent from school. In a viral video, Harris speaks proudly of bringing charges against a homeless single mother for her child’s poor attendance. The charges against this woman were ultimately dismissed, and more recently, Harris has expressed regret for this particular law.
But several people close to these issues in California say the Bureau of Children’s Justice she created has maintained its relevance since her departure for higher office, and continues to successfully remedy injustice.
A Passion Project
Habig, who now heads up her own nonprofit, the Public Rights Project, which aims to help state and local prosecutors protect the rights of their citizens, said forming the BCJ was a passion project for Harris, stemming from her interests in education, violence prevention and childhood trauma.
According to Habig, the genesis of the bureau’s creation came from Harris’ analysis of the state’s major child-serving programs and departments, searching for gaps in enforcement of laws designed to protect and provide for California’s youngest residents. Many such gaps stemmed from laws or programs that involved multiple departments. For example, the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) exists at the nexus of child welfare and law enforcement, but neither department was overseeing its provisions.
According to the Office of the Attorney General, BCJ is designed to address cases of “systemic failures and/or severe, widespread harm against children” by public, private and charitable institutions, as well as policies with a disproportionate effect on youth of color, LGBTQ youth, and those in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
In a speech announcing the bureau’s launch, Harris talked about the state getting “smart on crime,” and compared her plan to achieve that to the prevention-first model championed by public health, posting the benefits of preventing some of the factors that lead to crime and incarceration like social inequities and poor education.
“The Bureau of Children’s Justice is very much designed with that approach in mind — which is to focus on the needs of California’s children,” Harris said in that speech.
She argued that this prevention model would ultimately save taxpayer money and result in children growing up to contribute to the economy and an overall better quality of life for all Californians.
Alex Johnson, who was the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s California chapter when the bureau launched, praised its prevention focus.
BCJ “offers great opportunity to address the root causes of the cradle to prison pipeline,” said Johnson, who is now a program director for The California Wellness Foundation.
In announcing the bureau via a letter circulated to all counties in the state, Harris emphasized her interest in foster youth in particular. In the letter, Harris lays out the rights of foster youth guaranteed by California law and implores county leaders to evaluate current enforcement and oversight practices related to ensuring these rights are being upheld. She points to an audit from the year before and outcome data to argue that not enough is being done to serve the foster youth community.
“A review of the educational, employment, health and criminal justice outcomes for foster youth in California makes clear that we can and must do better,” Harris writes.
Most of the bureau’s investigations and cases are confidential to protect the integrity of the cases, according to the attorney general’s press office. Of the few that have been made public, several are focused on child welfare. Among these are an investigation around mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse in Humboldt County and a case about the San Bernardino County child welfare department’s compliance with laws to ensure the well-being of children in foster care.
Allegations in San Bernardino that top child welfare leaders covered up child deaths and severe abuse were part of the reason Harris established the BCJ, the San Bernardino Sun reported.
“It’s broken. It is broken,” Harris said of the state’s foster care system in the launch speech. “Government has a clear responsibility for treating these children with the highest priority, and we are falling short.”
In Humboldt, the bureau investigated the county’s compliance with the state’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) and their investigation of reports.
Steve Volow, executive director for the Humboldt branch of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) said that the investigation resulted in more kids being removed from their homes into protective custody — kids he believes should have been taken into care long ago. He said for years prior to BCJ’s involvement, the number of kids in foster care had remained around 250.
“They got busted and are finally removing more and more children that they should have been removing forever,” Volow said. He’s reviewed some of the case files of kids being removed now and said many have long histories of abuse and neglect referrals with no action taken.
After a multi-year investigation, the bureau levied an injunction for the county to retrain staff on the law and take the necessary steps to become compliant, and installed an outside “compliance monitor.” According to Volow, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) has been contracted to provide this monitoring service.
Volow said the BCJ’s investigation came after many years of other groups conducting inquiries into the same problems without producing any real results, including an investigation by the Child Welfare League of America in the mid-90s and several grand jury investigations. He attributes the stronger impact of this investigation to BCJ’s “scope and authority.”
Jennifer Perry, executive director at the Children’s Action Network, praised Harris for “understanding how vital it is to work across disciplines” when it comes to foster youth. She said she thinks the bureau will have a huge impact on improving outcomes.
“California is home to the largest foster care population in the country, so we can serve as a model in terms of focusing our efforts and changing the outcomes for these kids in care,” Perry said at the bureau’s launch event. “What the AG is doing is certainly doing that.”
Two of the bureau’s other public investigations revolve around the behavior of schools, both public and private.
The first case settled by the bureau, about a year after its launch, was against K-12, Inc., an online charter school that allegedly used false advertising and inflated claims about attendance to get funding.
Habig said Harris had a strong focus on treating kids as consumers and ensuring they were getting the goods and services they were promised.
Another case focused on allegations that Tobinworld, a private school for disabled children, was improperly using physical restraints and isolation on students with severe emotional disturbances and learning disabilities. Following the investigation, one of the Tobinworld campuses was forced to close after affiliated school districts removed their students.
Earlier this year, a case against the Stockton Unified School District closed after a three-year bureau investigation focused on alarmingly high arrest rates for children and teens, including very young kids, at district schools.
According to a 2015 report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, in 2013 “Stockton, with 1 percent of California’s children under age 10, account[ed] for 26 percent of the state’s arrests of children that age.” Stockton Unified School District was responsible for 89 percent of those arrests. Arrests for all youth younger than 18 in Stockton that year were 72 percent higher than the statewide average.
A 5-year-old Stockton boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was arrested after he lashed out at a school officer during a meeting, and one mother said the cops were called three times on her first-grade son for playing too long at recess, according to an article by Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
In the judgment handed down by the Superior Court, Harris’ successor, current Attorney General Xavier Becerra, outlines specific instances in which the school district can call on law enforcement and instructs that all other “low-level” issues be subject to school discipline only.
“They really did a good job in the Stockton case,” Males told The Chronicle.
Four years after launching and two years after Harris’ departure from state office, her creation has proven to have staying power. Now under Becerra’s watch, BCJ is not just continuing, but growing.
“AG Becerra has really taken a leadership role on these issues,” Habig said. “It’s been really wonderful to see the work continue.”
In fiscal year 2017-18, the bureau obtained a dedicated funding stream from the legislature for the first time. The bureau was originally staffed out of existing positions in the California Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Enforcement section, but the legislature approved new positions for BCJ, including 11 deputy attorneys general, two legal support staff and a supervisor to lead the bureau.
“We started with what’s available so we could articulate a proof of concept and show that the bureau was valuable, so then they could go and ask for more funding,” Habig said.
Now on the presidential campaign trail, Harris has been significantly less vocal about foster care or any of the children’s issues she focused on via BCJ. The only time she’s directly weighed in on foster care has been to push back against the discrimination of LGBTQ+ prospective foster parents in joint letters to Senate leadership and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
She has also called the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy which resulted in separating children from their parents and the detention of migrant youth “a human rights abuse.”
A few campaign promises, while not directly addressing the child welfare system, hold the possibility of improving the quality of life for children and families. One of Harris’s platforms is to provide free universal preschool and “debt-free” college education. These moves could significantly benefit foster and other at-risk youth, who often face developmental setbacks, poor academic outcomes and low access to higher education.
In her capacity as a U.S. Senator, Harris unveiled a tax credit plan in late 2018 that would give working families $500 per month in an effort to address income inequality and rising costs of living. She doubled down on the idea in her campaign announcement speech, framing it as a major platform of her candidacy. The vast majority of children known to the child welfare system come from poor families, and many advocates believe that supporting these families before protective services gets involved can have a preventative effect on children becoming victims of abuse and neglect.
Habig — who considers the presidential candidate a mentor — has strong faith in her governing skills and the quality of “sustained impatience” needed to see through major policy initiatives.
“The thing that I admire most about her is her ability to really stay focused in government on what really matters, and to not be distracted by kind of process-based things,” said Habig. “She has a real capacity to remain impatient and continue to push for what is actually going to have the most impact for the people she is serving.