California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Photo by John Schreiber.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Photo by John Schreiber.

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris on Thursday announced the creation of the Bureau of Children’s Justice to safeguard at-risk youth in the Southland and elsewhere.

Staffed with both civil rights and criminal prosecutors, the initiative will focus on several areas, including the state’s “broken” foster care, adoption and juvenile justice systems, Harris said.

“We simply cannot let down our most vulnerable children today, then lock them up tomorrow and act surprised,” Harris said.

“The Bureau of Children’s Justice will continue our smart on crime approach by addressing the root causes of crime, including our broken foster care system, and making certain that California’s children receive full protection under the law and equal opportunities to succeed,” she said. “One of the Bureau’s first orders of business will be to look at enforcement gaps in the foster care system and ensure that government agencies are held accountable to those entrusted in their care.”     Harris, the state’s top law enforcement officer, said 42 percent of students in the foster care system do not graduate from high school, compared to 12 percent of all California students, and more than 80 percent of prisoners throughout the country are high school dropouts.

“There is a direct link between education and public safety,” the AG said.

Harris said the bureau would make a critical examination of the foster care system.

“The government has a clear responsibility to treat these children with the highest priority,” she said, adding that the system would be held accountable for its failures.

In the bureau’s first action, Harris sent a letter to officials in all 58 counties in California, outlining their legal responsibilities with regard to foster youth and urging each county to evaluate their current enforcement and oversight policies and practices.

In the coming months, Harris said, the bureau will focus on identifying accountability and enforcement gaps in the foster system to ensure children have the support they need.

“We are thrilled that Attorney General Harris is making children her top priority with this new Bureau,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now. “Given the Attorney General’s past leadership and success with reducing chronic absence and suspensions in California, I’m confident the new Bureau will be very positive for children.”

Harris said the bureau would draw on the civil and criminal law enforcement capacity of the state Department of Justice and build on its existing work on issues affecting children. Priorities for the newly formed bureau include:

— California’s foster care, adoption, and juvenile justice systems;

— Discrimination and inequities in education;

— California’s elementary school truancy crisis;

— Human trafficking of vulnerable youth; and

— Childhood trauma and exposure to violence.

“I’m happy to join Attorney General Harris in shining a spotlight on the importance of safeguarding our children,” said Diana S. Dooley, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency. “We at the California Health and Human Services Agency place a high interest and priority on addressing childhood trauma and we are committed with our county and community partners to meet the needs of all of our kids.”

Harris also announced that the state DOJ was one of just three state agencies accepted by the U.S. Department of Justice to be part of its national Defending Childhood Initiative. Through this initiative, California will work to improve outcomes for children exposed to trauma by ensuring that at-risk children are screened for exposure to violence at school, when they visit a pediatrician, or when they become involved with child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The bureau will expand the state’s efforts to combat elementary school truancy, piloting programs with school districts to improve attendance and launching a new partnership with the University of California, Santa Barbara, to ensure these pilots can be replicated across the state.

The bureau will be staffed by attorneys and experts on legal issues impacting children, including civil rights, education, consumer protection, nonprofit charities, child welfare, privacy and identity theft, fraud and human trafficking, the AG said.

“Children need more than a hug,” Harris said, adding that “a hug is not going to cure” issues of childhood trauma.

“I think it’s smarter to try and stop something before it happens,” she said.

City News Service

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