Learn More – Law and Policy


The federal foster care system, in essence, is a multi-level, multi-state system of laws and policies aimed at serving the “best interests” of children who are removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

Beyond the federal system, California has many of its own legislative processes aimed at protecting children from maltreatment and improving the lives of foster youth. The California Department of Social Services’ Children and Family Services Division makes sure that the state’s 58 counties are following both state and federal law affecting foster youth. Like New York, and a handful of other states, each and every California county has its own public child welfare agency. In Southern California, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is the largest public child welfare agency, with 8,000 employees and budget of $2.2 billion.

Today in California, there are many laws, policies and legislation being implemented or enforced impacting the lives of children, youth and teens in foster care. These can be broken down into three major areas: safety, permanency and well-being.

In the area of safety, how does legislation impact foster youth?

Safety is a primary concern foster care today. There are major concepts that drive laws meant to keep children safe. There are:

  • Laws requiring removal of children out of dangerous situations.
  • Laws providing families with the support and resources they need to keep their children safe.

When did the issue of safety first become an important concern for foster care legislation?

The issue of safety in foster care and need for enforcement through legislation began in 1962 with the publication of a scientific paper called “The Battered Child Syndrome” by pediatrician, Henry Kempe.

The paper, which chronicled how doctors could detect child abuse in broken bones and other injuries, was a blockbuster, spawning media stories and swift action by the federal government.

In 1974, in an effort to make child abuse reporting uniform across the 50 states, Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. The Act authorizes federal funds to improve the now growing child welfare system’s response to, and treatment of child abuse.

What is the Reasonable Efforts Standard and how is it still in effect today?

In the late 1970s lawmakers became concerned with the rising numbers of children languishing in foster care for years at a time. Congress acted, passing the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. This law created the “reasonable efforts” standard, which requires child welfare agencies to make reasonable efforts to provide services that will help families remedy the conditions that brought the child and family into the child welfare system. Services include financial assistance, medical assistance, parental training and more.

If removal was necessary, the law sought to make sure that “reasonable efforts” were in places to reunite families.

But by 1997, lawmakers became concerned that laws around reasonable efforts were resulting in children staying in unsafe homes. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) was meant to tackle this problem by creating strict timelines for child welfare systems to decide if children could be returned to a safe home. In the event that they could not, ASFA put pressure on states to terminate parental rights and place children with adoptive families.

What are some examples of legislation on permanency in effect today?

One area of foster youth legislation today is centered on the idea of permanency, which strives to ensure that foster youth are rooted in stable, permanent homes where they can reach their full potential. Overall, permanency-focused legislation promotes a foster youth’s adoption or speeds up reunification with family when it is safe.

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) of 1980 and the Adoptions and Safe Family Act (ASFA) of 1997 both highlight the importance of permanency from different angles.

AACWA emphasizes importance on the idea of keeping families together to ensure permanency.

AFSA argues that permanency decisions have to be made under a strict timeline to ensure that children don’t spend an unreasonable amount of time in care or returned to unsafe homes.

Finally, Assembly Bill 403, the most pressing legislation impacting foster youth in Southern California, passed in 2015.

What is Assembly Bill 403 and how does it impact foster youth today?

The California Continuum of Care Reform Act is legislation signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2015 that aims to drastically reduce the number of children placed in group homes and reduce the amount of time they spend there across California.

The legislation requires that group homes be replaced with short-term residential treatment centers that only provide temporary care to children who demonstrate a need for more specialized or intensive care. All such placements would require a case plan and timeline for moving the child to a less intensive placement, such as in a foster home. The reduction of group homes throughout California will require more foster parents to be recruited and retained.

Ultimately, the state hopes to increase permanency for children in group homes by placing them with family members or in loving foster homes. The state is hoping that increased resources to such “resource families,” will lead to more stability in the often turbulent lives of foster youth.

What are some examples of legislation on well-being in effect today?
Doctor explaining something to a Latin child

Another area of concern for foster youth today is legislation around well-being. Well-being hinges on the idea that as long as foster youth are in care they should be afforded all the standard, basic rights of any child. Legislation enforcing less school moves during a foster youth’s lifetime and less transitions are two examples of policies being put into place today throughout Southern California.

In 2011, then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 12, which took advantage of the federal Fostering Connections Act to pay for extending foster care to age 21. In July of 2016, more than 2,500 foster youth in Los Angeles County were living in extended foster care, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project, housed at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare.

This extension of care allows foster youth easier transitions into adulthood, and research has shown that they are more likely to attend college when supported past their 18th birthday.

Given the importance of education in the well-being of foster youth, Congress member Karen Bass, a Democrat representing Los Angeles, drafted and introduced the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which was signed by President Obama in 2013. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act allows foster care caseworkers to see foster youth’s educational records, thus creating an opportunity to help them with educational achievement.

In 2015, the long-awaited overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, brought with it new provisions to ensure school stability for foster youth.