California Looks to Lead the Country in Child Well-Being

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Burke Harris
California's new Surgeon General, pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris
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Recently there have been several developments in California that suggest a groundswell of support for children’s well-being.

The new administration of Governor Newsom got the ball rolling with the establishment of the state’s first Surgeon General (one of only four states to do so) and appointed Dr. Nadine Burk Harris to the position.

Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician, is the founder of Center for Youth Wellness, a San-Francisco-based clinic. She is widely recognized as a pioneer in the study of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and is the author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity published in 2018 and featured in both the New York Times and on NPR. Her TED Talk, “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime,” has been viewed nearly 5 million times.

“Governor Newsom’s vision to address healthcare from a preventive, rather than reactive, frame reflects a keen appreciation of the latest science as well as a deep commitment to the health of California children and families,” said Dr. Burke Harris in a press release. “I am honored to serve in this capacity and will work hard to support the health of all Californians.”

Governor Newsom’s proposed budget would set aside $45 million to identify ACEs among children and adults involved in the state’s Medicaid program. In addition, he has proposed $60 million to offer early developmental screenings for children “[t]o strengthen preventive services and better address the social determinants of health.”

In another area, Governor Gavin Newsom announced his administration will begin legislation to move the California Division of Juvenile Justice out of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and into the Health and Human Services Agency.

Currently, 20 states place juvenile justice under their health or child welfare agencies, 18 have independent juvenile justice agencies, and 11 (including California) place it under corrections agencies, according to the Chronicle of Social Change.

Newsom’s proposal signals a wider cultural change in California’s handling of youth in the prison system, focusing on prevention and treatment through educational, mental health, and social services in place of detention, the Los Angeles Times reports. In a statement released by the Governor’s office, “Juvenile justice should be about helping kids imagine and pursue new lives—not jump-starting the revolving door of the criminal justice system. The system should be helping these kids unpack trauma and adverse experiences many have suffered.”

The Governor is not the only one introducing measures to change the state’s approach to handling children’s well-being. Sen. Jim Beall (D) has introduced Senate Bill 150 which intends to amend the state’s college aid program for foster youth, so it covers more students and loses fewer of them to academic problems.

The Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV) is a federal-state match program that provides up to $5,000 per year to current or former foster youth to help with the costs of college. SB150 would require schools to factor in the unique circumstances of foster youth when academic performance jeopardizes their ETV grant. The bill would also amend schools’ Satisfactory Academic Progress policies to take into account foster youths’ unique and special challenges and prevent schools from imposing additional requirements on Chafee recipients.

SB 150 is the latest in a series of moves from California legislators to expand access to Chafee ETV and other financial aid sources for foster youth.

Because of the size of California, the state’s efforts to provide a stronger and more supportive environment for its children will be carefully watched by other states and increase the nation awareness of the unique needs of its child citizens.

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