A new bill would allow some former criminals to become foster parents

State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) has introduced a bill to streamline criminal background clearances for foster parents.
State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) has introduced a bill to streamline criminal background clearances for foster parents.

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A bill that would make it easier for some people with criminal histories to become foster parents is making its way through the California legislature.

Senate Bill 213, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, is part of a broader effort to reduce the use of group homes for foster kids and place more with relatives. The bill passed the senate and heads to the Assembly Judiciary Committee Tuesday. 

"We began to look at some of the barriers that prevent good people from becoming foster parents," Mitchell said. "A grandma, aunt, or uncle who may have had, twenty, thirty years ago a brush with the law that's preventing them from stepping up, particularly in emergency situations, to take care of a family member." 

Currently, the state maintains a somewhat confusing list of convictions that exclude people from becoming foster parents. The federal government has its own list, which is considerably less strict than the state's.

There's also a group of "wobbler" or on-the-line offenses that allow child welfare agencies to look at the particular circumstances of a crime and determine if the individual is currently fit to serve as a foster parent, said Brandon Nichols, acting director of L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services.

The process can be cumbersome, he said.

"We'd get old arrest reports, court hearing reports," Nichols said, which can be particularly hard to find when the conviction is old or from another state.

Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the California Welfare Directors Association, said she's heard of cases where a relative couldn't take in a child because they couldn't access paperwork from a decades-old conviction in Louisiana. 

"The records had been lost in Hurricane Katrina," she said.

Her organization and Los Angeles County are backing SB 213. The bill would fast track some background reviews. It would also allow kids to be placed with family on an emergency basis while a minor or very old conviction goes through the exemption process.

"If everyone agrees the placement is in the best interest of the child, what we're trying to do is minimize moves, which can be very disruptive and very emotionally difficult," Senderling-McDonald said. 

The bill would also widen the list of  misdemeanor offenses that are exemptible—including things like statutory rape. 

"That sounds terrible," Senderling-McDonald said. "But that could be something where it was a nineteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old and they were consenting boyfriend and girlfriend, and the parents were unhappy and filed the charges. And you look into that and you say, oh my goodness, that was twenty years ago and they were teenagers."

In those cases, child welfare workers would have to do a thorough exemption review before placing the child.