Laws, especially those dealing with children's safety, seem too often to be the legal equivalent of killing a fly with a submachine gun. What we have seen, as county-appointed advocates for youth justice issues, is that AB 74 is just such a law.
An article in The Press Democrat ("Struggle to stay open: Children's Village falls below capacity as referrals from county dry up," Feb. 28) provided an overview of how one of many Sonoma County group homes is feeling the effects of this law without looking at the more troublesome aspects of the law.
We are members of the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission, a group of volunteer citizens appointed by the court to be the watchdog for youth in our county, with oversight into the treatment, safety and well-being of the youth under the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts.
As part of that charge, we inspect the places where our most vulnerable youth end up living. Our yearly inspections of the county's group homes, as well as the county juvenile hall and probation camp can be found on our website (juvenilejusticecommission.org).
It is in this role we feel the public needs to know more about AB 74.
Group homes serve an important purpose in the social safety net of our county. They often take in those children who have been in and out of foster homes and those whose upbringing has left them with serious problems that caring families alone cannot handle. These children need the more specialized care that is offered in the therapeutic environment provided by many of our group homes.
Placing deadlines on the time children can spend in these group homes because of a misguided notion that foster homes are better is a plan without merit and without input from commissions that are appointed in every county in the state.
During our inspections, we interview the children who live in group homes. More often than not, the kids praise the stability, support and nurturing environment that is provided to them, which they have rarely experienced in their lives. Often, the youth state that they are no longer the person they were when they arrived. Many have said they very much want to stay in their group home, as this has been the most constant, functional and healing part of their life.
Most don't want to "try" more foster or adoptive homes as "something always goes wrong."
The assumption that just more foster homes will solve the group home "problem" that the legislation is supposed to fix is troubling. This is the last thing these children need. They need stability, treatment and a supportive environment where they can heal and learn the skills they will need when they become adults. Although many foster homes may give a supportive home to children, too many cannot offer the level of care and supervision that the group homes provide.
We want to be clear: We are not attempting to indict the foster home system. Many people are wonderful foster parents offering loving environments to children who have experienced little in their lives. To paint all foster homes with the same broad brush is to do what AB 74 has done with the group homes.
What we are saying is that there are some children who need the group home environment to heal in a place where they feel safe. These children will be adults before we know it, and we want them to be productive members of our society.