Most press accounts about California Democratic Party Chair John Burton begin with references to his profanity. Following that, descriptions are offered like “bombastic,” “coarse,” “brusque” and, perhaps, a charitable “gruff.”
These stories, which after Burton’s nearly 50 years in politics are legion, usually end with some leavening assessment that can generally be summarized as:
“But he’s got a good heart.”
The 58,000 California kids in foster care – the highest number of any state in the nation – see the Burton who appears at the end of the profiles.
Since 2005, Burton – and the foundation he created after being forced from the Legislature by term limits – has used his connections, fundraising prowess and powers of persuasion to improve the odds of success for the children and young adults in what’s often called California’s most glaring public policy failure.
Initially, the foundation was aimed at homeless children.
“I realized homeless kids are a societal, capitalism, free-enterprise problem. It’s what the occupiers are trying to deal with,” Burton told Capitol Weekly.
“But foster care is a government program and you can change it because it’s specifically a government responsibility.”
Foster kids are taken away from their parents because of abuse or neglect. They are wards of the court. In effect, the state is their parent.
California could improve its parenting skills.
While an emphasis on adoptions, guardianships and placement with relatives has lowered the number of foster kids from 160,000 in 1998, the roughly 5,000 foster youth who ‘age out’ of the system at 18 each year more than likely didn’t complete high school.
They are also more likely to become homeless – up to 45 percent within 18 months, according to one study – engage in substance abuse or enter the criminal justice system.
A study from five years ago found 70 percent of state prison inmates had been in the foster care system at one time.
“If you took an 18-year-old, much less one traumatized by abuse, neglect and abandonment, and either returned them to the home of abuse, neglect and abandonment they previously were removed from or sent them to a shelter with a bag of personal items, that’s not going to be very effective,” said Jackie Rutheiser of the California Alliance for Child and Family Services, which represents accredited foster care providers.
Burton’s foundation – a pipsqueak by foundation standards – has been active at both the macro and the micro.
Its success comes from a “woman who knows what the problems are and me who knows how to get things done,” Burton says.
That woman is Amy Lemly, the foundation’s policy director who refuses to believe something can’t be accomplished, Burton says.
Lemly and the 79-year-old San Francisco Democrat were the driving force for federal legislation signed in 2008 that allows states to continue financial support for foster youth – or former foster youth – until age 21.
A press conference with U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca kicked off the drive for the policy change. Baca is a personal friend of Burton’s. Boxer began her political career running then-Rep. Burton’s Marin district office.
“The average family does not stop providing support for their child at age 18,” says Lemly. “That time – from 18 to 21 – lets them finish high school and get a leg up on higher education so when their care is over they can be well-established.”
Burton and Lemly had a strong ally in Cassie Bevan, at the time a senior policy advisor to then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay and his wife, Christine, were foster parents of three boys.
Although DeLay resigned before passage of the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, Bevan remained, shepherding the bill through Congress making “sure that the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate understood the importance of this,” Burton said at a 2010 press conference in Sacramento to sign state legislation extending California’s benefits to age 21.
“What’s unique about the foundation is John. He has such a rich and diverse network of people he can communicate with. It’s right-wing Republicans like Tom DeLay, members of the clergy, law enforcement, tribes. In today’s political climate that’s not just rare, it’s almost extinct,” says Lemly.
Asked what it was like working with Burton, Bevan laughs:
“It doesn’t matter. He’s passionate about this issue. Like DeLay. They probably don’t agree on anything else. A lot of the success comes from John getting on the phone and being strategic. Strategic in the sense they get in early and shape the policy before the bill is (introduced.) That’s where the power is.”
Burton jokes that he and DeLay also agree “the Russian Revolution was a communist plot.”
The federal law offered more incentives for adoptions and for relatives to act as guardians. Generally, foster youth placed in a stable environment with relatives succeed better.
State legislation was needed for California to tap into the additional federal foster care dollars created through the 2008 legislation.
“The foundation conducted these intense grassroots efforts, writing letters, bringing kids up to testify,“ said Ruthieser. ”They were excellent at organizing.”
But budget issues stalled the bill – 2010’s AB 12 by Assemblyman Jim Beall, a San Jose Democrat.
Facing a projected $18 billion budget gap, a bill increasing foster care costs by providing aid for an additional three years seemed doomed.
Part of the federal legislation included financial incentives to encourage relatives to become guardians of foster kids.
California has had its own Kinship Guardianship Assistance Payment program since 1998, offering financial help to 14,500 former foster children living with guardian relatives in 2009.
But the Fostering Connections Act proposed to make new federal funds available only to future guardianships, not existing ones.
Burton argued with the federal government that doing so penalized California, which had been championing for more than a decade the policy the federal government just endorsed.
The federal government changed the rule and the $60 million savings in state costs from the new revenue allowed AB 12 to be signed.
“The foundation is a very large reason AB 12 was passed,” said Angie Schwartz of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.
Phased in over the three years – one additional year of eligibility each year – the bill takes effect January 1.
Burton and Lemly’s influence has affected other policies.
Proposition 1C, the 2006 housing bond, contained $50 million to build shelter for homeless former foster youth. Not a coincidence.
The foundation has given hundreds of hours of free help to smaller agencies serving foster youth around the state, offering grant-writing advice, among other things.
Alli Reed at the Homeless Youth Alliance sought $200,000 in federal money to increase the number of youth they serve and create a website.
Foundation staff helped her tailor it to the federal government’s unique language.
“It was super helpful to know what they were looking for,” Reed said.
When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wanted to count guardianship payments to grandparents as income, Burton had Rep. Maxine Waters “convince” the agency otherwise.
The foundation lobbied to sharply boost funding for the state’s only housing program for former foster youth, increasing participation from 165 youths to 2,400.
Annually, the foundation gives away laptops and backpacks to hundreds of former foster youth in college – necessities many don’t have.
Burton relates the story of a former foster youth who he watched graduate from college with a degree in nursing.
“Seeing that was more emotional to me than when Kim (his daughter Kimiko) graduated from college because there was no doubt in my mind Kim would make it.
“It just makes you feel so proud these kids can do this, can survive and succeed. Fucking heart-filling.”