SB 88 would make transportation barriers for kids in foster care even worse

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OPINION – Every day in courts, we make monumental decisions about a child’s future, with the ultimate goal of providing each and every child with a normal, safe, and happy childhood. I would know: I served as a referee in children’s court for over 30 years, and was named the Juvenile Court Judge of the Year.

In California, the right to a normal and happy childhood is codified in law as part of the Welfare and Institutions Code 362.05. This means many things, but a critical part is that foster youth are entitled to participate in appropriate extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities for their age if they choose.

They are entitled to go to after school sports games or to join a club. They are entitled to friends’ birthday parties and going to the movies. They’re also entitled to the stability that can come with attending their school of origin no matter where their foster placement is, and to visitations with their family. These rights were affirmed in the Foster Youth Bill of Rights, and underscore the fact that just because a child is in the foster system doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the opportunity to access the tools needed for emotional and developmental growth.

A bill in the Legislature puts this all at risk.

For decades, we have passed laws that ensure children are entitled to go to school, activities, and events, but we have never passed laws that ensure they can get there, ultimately making it difficult for foster families to make this standard a reality. California is the largest dependency system in the world, and we’re severely lacking in transportation options for our most vulnerable children. Over the years, agencies, schools and families have found solutions. Back in the early ‘90s the state would pay for gas for family members to help get children to and from activities.

More recently, there have been public-private partnerships that fill the gap for foster youth. Partnerships between school districts or child welfare agencies and private companies have meant that thousands of students in foster care have been able to stay in their school of origin despite moving placements. These trips have a substantial presence in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. The gap in transportation access still exists, but we’ve made the most meaningful progress on this issue in decades.

If passed, Senate Bill 88 would put into place new restrictions and limitations that would make it impossible for individual transportation options to operate.

Now, new legislation threatens to undo that progress. If passed, Senate Bill 88 would put into place new restrictions and limitations that would make it impossible for individual transportation options to operate. This bill would mean there are even fewer ways to get children where they need to go, leaving our children and our school districts scrambling to meet the needs of kids – and their obligations under the law.

What’s so concerning about SB 88 is that the people who will be most impacted by this legislation aren’t asking for this. In fact, many of the child welfare groups I know and work with every day are strictly opposed to this bill because of what it would do. Departments, schools, families and the advocates within the courts don’t have an issue with these services – we desperately want, and need, them to stay available.

Furthermore, the legislators who are pushing for SB 88 aren’t proposing other transportation options as an alternative. There is simply no plan in place to address the new problems this bill will create.

Policymakers must consider our existing legal responsibility to provide foster youth with a normal and happy childhood, and the vital importance of transportation. If we are going to comply with Welfare and Institutions Code 362.05, our kids and families need more solutions, not more barriers.

SB 88 will come up for a vote in the State Assembly and if passed, it would go to Governor Gavin Newsom. They cannot let this bill pass. Lawmakers and Governor Newsom need to step up and uphold their values by prioritizing our most vulnerable children and uphold the laws in place to ensure all of California’s kids have the same opportunities.

Referee Sherri Sobel has 35 years of experience as a child welfare advocate and Children’s Court Bench Officer. Named the 2007 California Juvenile Court Judge of the Year, Sobel presided over a court in the largest dependency system in the world.

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