Amidst the Abolition of California’s Juvenile Justice System, Are We Bold Enough to Dismantle and Re-imagine our Child Welfare System?

By Sonya Soni

Sonya Soni is a senior fellow at Foster America.

The passing of Measure J — a call to address structural racism by investing in community resources — has allowed the social justice community to breathe again and to dissect the previously unexamined oppressive roots of our public systems.

As a policy architect in South LA’s child welfare landscape, I’ve been reflecting on how our public systems reinforce and legitimize each other, especially the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. As we examine the complex layers of police terrorism in communities like South LA amidst the call to defund the police, we must grapple with the fact that the carceral apparatus also extends into the homes of Black and brown families.

Our child welfare systems aren’t far from the state-sanctioned violence against communities of color enacted by law enforcement. They’re just more insidiously hidden by the veneer of ‘child protection.’ Both systems criminalize and separate families of color, creating the same outcomes for so many youth affected by generational trauma and structural inequality. Over-surveilling BIPoC communities through the juvenile justice and child welfare systems has allowed for the systematic divestment in community resources. Rather than uncomfortably confronting the root causes of family instability, we problematize and institutionalize resource-denied communities.

The “blaming the victim” approach has been a common strategy in child welfare and juvenile justice policies. Policy development is informed by research that cites maltreatment in the home as the main reason for youth ending up in juvenile prisons and foster homes. The impact of this is apparent: 80% of probation youth in LA County are “dual status youth,” meaning their families are also being investigated by our child welfare system. This is all the more insidious when we consider how often poverty is conflated with “child neglect” and is used as justification for family separation — one criteria used to assess the removal of a child from their home is if his or her parents work more than two jobs, a commonplace reality for many marginalized families.

In September, Governor Newsom signed SB 823 to abolish juvenile prisons, launch the Office of Youth & Community Restoration, build restorative justice centers, and establish a healing-centered paradigm for institutionalized youth. What does the monumental end of LA County’s juvenile prisons mean for all our other systems, especially the child welfare system?

Revolution does not rise from dismantling systems alone. It’s about restoring and healing communities of color who’ve been subjugated for hundreds of years, and addressing both the social and structural determinants of child and family well-being. It’s not just providing housing, but fighting discriminatory redlining policies. Not just offering resume workshops for struggling parents, but implementing robust worker benefits for those in the informal economy.

Many of these structural solutions are fortunately being crafted in local family and child well-being ecosystems across the country. A universal basic income scheme for youth in foster care is happening in Santa Clara County. Congresswoman Karen Bass’s South LA non-profit organization, Community Coalition, has been on the frontline of institutionalizing community voice, placing community organizers at the center of liberatory system design. The U.S. Children’s Bureau, in partnership with Casey Family Programs and other child welfare institutions, is launching a public-private partnership, the “Thriving Families, Safer Children” initiative, to model what the transition from our punitive model to a child well-being system could look like.

And so, are we courageous enough to abolish and reimagine our child welfare system and transition to a just child well-being system? As rupi kaur once reflected, “We must tear down systems that exploit us so that we can build those that raise us.”

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