California Passes Major Reform To Broken Group Home System, But Will It Work?

Vector illustration of a man lock up in prisonEarlier this year, a groundbreaking lawsuit out of Compton made national headlines. In May, public interest lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, arguing that the Compton Unified school district failed to accommodate students suffering from trauma. Essentially, the lawsuit states that the students’ childhood trauma should be classified as a disability, which would entitle untold numbers of traumatized young people to protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

And that could be a game-changing decision for young people struggling to succeed in classrooms around the country. The lawyers said they are hoping to affect change on a national scale. For now, a federal judge has said the class-action suit can proceed.

In the meantime, California Governor Jerry Brown has signed legislation that will reform California’s “broken juvenile group home system.” Gov. Brown and state legislators promise the law will change the way the state deals with youths in crisis. It’s public knowledge that many California group homes are plagued by sexual abuse, violence, and neglect.

Many of the students included in the Compton lawsuit faced abuse in the foster care system, which has been cited as an integral section of the school-to-prison pipeline. The trauma they endured in group homes would make it nearly impossible to succeed in school, but critics of the lawsuit say that doesn’t qualify them for disability protections.

The act already covers a wide range of disabilities like chronic back pain, the leading cause of disability in Americans under the age of 45. Students living with deafness, blindness, mobility impairments, and other common physical disabilities are also covered. But mental disabilities, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, are covered under the act as well .

Unfortunately, it will take much more than legislation and lawsuits to care for the state’s most vulnerable young people.

“Getting the legislation passed was the easy part,” said Carroll Schroeder of the California Alliance for Youth and Family Services. “We have got to find those foster families, get them approved and trained and make sure they are getting the services and support they need to be successful.”

And in the classroom, the lawyers behind the Compton lawsuit allege that the district should do more to train teachers to deal with traumatized students. For its part, the district argues that it’s willing to do everything it can to serve the children in its care.

“We want to point out that until we were notified of this lawsuit, no one had come to us to discuss this issue or to express interest in working with us on it,” said Compton Unified School Board President Micah Ali.