Obama Foundation Lauds Local Community Leader

After sorting through about 20,000 applications from around the world, the Obama Foundation awarded one of its first fellowships to the founder of a local nonprofit that mentors thousands of incarcerated, foster, and at-risk youth, helping them change their lives for the better.

“I am honored to be part of the inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows class and join this diverse group of passionate civic innovators,” New Earth founder Harry Grammer said. “Through the Obama Foundation Fellowship, I look forward to continuing to help more youth realize their dreams and become unstoppable.”

Grammer knows all too well the struggles that his students face. At age 16, he was arrested and sentenced to five years of probation, but he managed to turn his life around and began operating New Earth out of a coffee shop in 2004.

Now, New Earth offers free mentor-based education, counseling, job training and other services to about 500 youth per week in probation camps, juvenile halls, group homes and other placements throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The youth are also given an opportunity to explore writing, music, poetry, performance and art in an environment of creativity and introspection, which are critical to fostering new perspectives while incarcerated.

Upon their release, the youth join the New Earth Arts and Leadership Center in Culver City, which offers career training, a fully accredited high school education program, mentorship, case management, nature expeditions, arts programming, and wrap-around services. New Earth also has a campus in Gardena that offers vocational education in the fields of construction, culinary arts and early childhood education, as well as other services.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas presented New Earth founder Harry Grammer with a scroll in 2017.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas honored Grammer at a Board of Supervisors meeting in late 2017, shortly after he was named a CNN Hero and after the California State Legislature recognized New Earth as Nonprofit of the Year.

“With their dedication and commitment, Harry Grammer and New Earth have helped 10,000 young people overcome tremendous obstacles and turn their lives around,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “They are making Los Angeles County safer by investing in youth and promoting second chances.”

New Earth has a 95 percent success rate in preventing its students from returning to the juvenile justice system, thanks to programs that help them reenter their communities with the support and nurturing they need to make a successful transition.

The Obama Foundation Fellowship will help Grammer and New Earth take their work to the next level. It is a two-year non-residential program that brings together the next generation of civil leaders creating transformational change on many of the world’s most pressing problems. The Fellowship offers hands-on training, leadership development, and a powerful network for participants to amplify the impact of their work and inspire a wave of civic innovation.

Out of the inaugural class of 20 Obama Foundation Fellows, Grammer is the only one chosen from Southern California, and one of only 10 working in the United States.

“The 2018 Obama Foundation Fellows come from diverse backgrounds but share a common desire to make positive change and create the world as it should be,” said Obama Foundation CEO David Simas. “By bringing these individuals together to work with the Obama Foundation, we hope to help amplify the work of our Fellows so it has a widespread impact. On behalf of President and Mrs. Obama and the Obama Foundation family, I congratulate our new Fellows and look forward to working with them.”

Supervisors Oppose Proposed Trump Administration Cuts to Affordable Housing

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted, with one abstention, to send a letter to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson expressing their “strong opposition” to his proposal to reduce federal housing subsidies to the poor.

Sec. Carson is calling on Congress to pass the Making Affordable Housing Work Act, which would triple – to $150 – the minimum monthly rent that an estimated 175,000 households receiving federal housing subsidies must pay. It would also require about 2 million households in subsidized housing to increase their share of the rent to 35 percent of their adjusted income, up from 30 percent.  Finally, the measure would allow public housing authorities to impose work requirements on tenants – up to 32 hours a week.

“If you think homelessness is a problem now, try this on for size,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of the motion, said of the proposed Act. “This could have a devastating effect on LA County, which already has one of the nation’s least affordable housing markets and, as a result, the largest homeless population.”

“I was dismayed to see the Secretary introduce this, right after a conversation about the responsibility and opportunity that government agencies have to help lift individuals and families out of poverty,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “There is no question that the current regulations are archaic, but there is simply a better way to approach policy reform, and we should engage accordingly.”

The LA County Community Development Commission analyzed the proposed Act and found that families in public housing would have to spend an average of $570 towards rent every month – $104 more than they currently do – if the requirement to pay 35 percent of their income were to be adopted by Congress. Seniors and tenants with severely limited incomes would be most acutely affected by the rent increases.

“This proposal is cruel and frankly unnecessary,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, the motion’s co-author. “Section 8 units in LA County are home to some of our poorest families and often are the only thing standing between them and homelessness. We need creative solutions for homelessness from our HUD secretary but this proposal is counterproductive and should not be allowed to move forward.”

Section 8 refers to vouchers issued by the federal government to help very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing.

Board Approves Unprecedented Probation Reform and Oversight

L-R: ACLU’s Ian Kysel; Urban Peace Institute’s Josh Green; Children’s Defense Fund’s Shimica Gaskins; and A New Way of Life’s Susan Burton testify in favor of the motion.

The Board of Supervisors voted to adopt a comprehensive roadmap for reforming the troubled Probation Department, including creating a Probation Oversight Commission with unprecedented authority to conduct inquiries and investigations in partnership with the Office of Inspector General.

“Probation reform is the order of the day,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of the motion. “Rehabilitation should be the thrust of Probation, and we owe it to the department’s approximately 9,000 youth and 47,000 adult clients to get this done in a better way.”

“From mismanagement of grant funds to abuses in the camps, the challenges are so widespread and systematic that they stymie those in Probation who are trying to do good work,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “I believe strengthening oversight and increasing accountability can help the department not only improve its operations and fulfill its mandate, but also restore public trust.”

“Today’s action sets into motion a comprehensive process to ensure that the Probation Department is able to make the transformational change that the department and the community deserves,” the motion’s coauthor, Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, said. “As we move forward with implementing a modern approach to criminal justice through concrete and impactful reforms, this new Commission is charged with an important mandate for action. I will continue to work with the Probation Department and my colleagues on the Board to make certain that accountability, transparency and community engagement are a cornerstone of Probation oversight and reform.”

The Board voted to adopt a series of recommendations by County Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai, which include immediately creating a short-term Reform and Implementation Team to synthesize decades worth of reform recommendations for Probation into a single unified vision for reform.

The Team would also advise the Board on how to strengthen and repurpose the existing Probation Commission into a new Probation Oversight Commission with a full complement of staff that reports directly to the Board and whose scope will be expanded to include not only youth but adult populations.

The new structure would mirror that of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, with the Office of Inspector General acting as the investigative entity for both.

Several advocates and leaders of community organizations welcomed the proposed reforms and stressed the urgent need for oversight. “We have an opportunity here to put into place the type of institutionalized support that can earn the public trust that is so crucial to the effective delivery of services,” said Josh Green, criminal justice program director at the Urban Peace Institute. “It represents an important step in ongoing efforts to improve and reimagine what juvenile justice and adult supervision can and should look like in Los Angeles.”

Children’s Defense Fund-California executive director Shimica Gaskins added, “The motion recognizes the tremendous leadership and reform work currently happening but also recognizes the need for a structure that outlives any particular champion to ensure there is positive, consistent vision, policy and practice serving the youth and adults who come in contact with Probation.”

Former LA juvenile court Judge Jan Levine was among two Probation Commissioners who testified in support of the motion. She said, “I have been frustrated by the current Probation Commission’s structural impediments to effecting change. The new Probation Oversight Commission will have the staff support that is sorely needed. Combined with the added capacity of the Inspector General, this body will be able to ensure more transparency and provide a forum for families and stakeholders to participate in Probation issues.”

The Board also heard testimony from people who have been directly affected by the department. Kent Mendoza, policy coordinator at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said, “As someone who was on probation from age 13 to 21, I can personally tell you that reform and oversight are needed. A civilian oversight body with more teeth and robust community engagement are critical principles that will help us sustain reform.

“Probation reform is much needed,” said Ingrid Archie, staff member at the community nonprofit A New Way of Life. “We are sick and tired of having to bargain for our humanity.”

Ensuring Safe and Clean Water

Acting on an urgency motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Board of Supervisors activated a strike team to investigate reports that brown water is running through taps in Willowbrook and Compton, and to take immediate steps to prevent any serious risks to public health.

In recent months, several customers of the independently operated Sativa Water District have complained about discoloration in their water supply.

“This is alarming,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “While it is ultimately the state that holds the authority to regulate Sativa’s water quality, all state and local entities have a moral obligation to ensure our residents have safe and clean water.”

“It is incumbent upon the County Department of Public Health to investigate immediately,” he added. “If there is a health risk, we are committed to working with state regulators to come up with immediate and long-term solutions.”

Ridley-Thomas’ motion also calls on County agencies to determine whether appropriate management and governance of the water district is in place to address Sativa’s existing infrastructure issues and ensure that customers have ongoing access to clean and safe water. This could include working with the Local Agency Formation Commission and the State Water Resources Control Board to explore options to dissolve Sativa and identify a more sustainable water purveyor for the area.

Sativa currently has about 1,600 customers in the unincorporated community of Willowbrook and the City of Compton.

 

Board Moves to Shut Down Pipeline From Foster Care to Juvenile Justice

(Left to Right): Michael Nash (OCP), Taylor Lytle (ARC), Xavier Bruttomesso (National Foster Youth Institute), Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Dr. Jacquelyn McCroskey (Children’s Data Network), Jesse de la Cruz (Alliance for Children’s Rights), Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, Lawrence Winston (NFYI), and Julio Marcial (Liberty Hill). All photos by Martin Zamora / Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion aimed at preventing foster youth from becoming entangled in the juvenile justice system, and ensuring supportive care for those do.

Such “dual status” or “crossover” youth, who fall under the jurisdiction of both the dependency and delinquency systems, are a particularly vulnerable population: a 2016 report by Cal State Los Angeles showed that three-quarters of dual status youth had a mental health diagnosis, and one-tenth had attempted suicide.

“The issue of dual status youth is fundamental to the very question of how the County can improve its social safety net,” said the motion’s principal author, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “The foster care to juvenile justice pipeline is real, and all too common. Once foster youth cross over to the delinquency system, the outcomes are grim – one-third of dual status youth are not even enrolled in school. Now is the time to reverse these trends.”

His coauthor, Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, added, “We are seeing the same kids who have lived in foster homes end up in juvenile halls and probation camps. We are losing a generation of youth to the system, but these youth are in our care and we have a responsibility to do better. They need informed supportive services so they can break free from the cycle of neglect, trauma, and delinquency and forge their own path to a better life. I hope this report will help us find ways to address this issue and provide our youth with the tools they need to succeed.”

Julio Marcial, Director of Youth Justice with the Liberty Hill Foundation, Taylor Lytle, Youth Advocate with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), and Jesse de la Cruz (Alliance for Children’s Rights), provide testimony during the Board of Supervisors meeting.

Taylor Lytle entered the foster care system at age 11, only to become a victim of abuse in her foster placement and placed on unnecessary psychotropic medication that, as she described, “robbed me of my voice and ability to advocate for myself.” She was first arrested and sent to juvenile hall at age 13 for an incident at her group home, and cycled in and out of juvenile hall and probation camps for probation violations over the next four years. “I feel like the system failed me,” she told the Board. “I spent most of my teenage years incarcerated for violations like school suspensions, drug use and running away from placements – clear signs of the trauma and anger I was experiencing. I wish somebody would have just helped me reconnect with my siblings and offered me guidance. Once you enter the justice system, it is so hard to get out of it. I am hopeful that this motion can change that, and I look forward to participating in finding the solutions.”

Several other former dual status youth, connected to advocacy organizations like Alliance for Children’s Rights and National Foster Youth Institute, provided compelling testimony at the Board meeting.

Liliana Flores was referred to the foster care system after experiencing physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her parents. “I was put in a group home where there was gang activity and drugs on a daily basis. I was hurting and got caught up in it. I was arrested twice and put in juvenile hall by the age of 16,” she said. “I continued to bounce around from juvenile halls to group homes without any guidance or help in regards to my education, social skills, or citizenship. During my teenage years, I felt like the system completely forgot about me. It is important that, with this motion, we change this dynamic. I don’t want any youth to have to experience what I did.”

Michael Nash, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Office of Child Protection (OCP), speaks in support of the motion, which charges the OCP with convening the workgroup that will draft the Countywide plan.

“I’m excited about this motion because it calls for a collaborative approach,” said Children’s Data Network co-director Jacquelyn McCroskey. “One of our organization’s recent studies found way too many of our youth have been moving back and forth across the child welfare and delinquency systems. They and their families are too important not to bring all resources to bear in support of creating better futures.”

The newly approved motion charges the Office of Child Protection (OCP) with creating a countywide plan for dual status youth – and those at risk of becoming such youth – that is informed by an understanding of their particular needs and the policy changes underway. The motion passed unanimously, with minor amendments and suggestions to ensure disparities among LGBTQ youth are addressed as well as legal relief and record clearing offered to dual status youth.

The OCP is uniquely poised to lead this work. It will liaise with the Juvenile Court; convene affected youth, and the County departments and community stakeholders serving them; identify funds to enhance services; and build on improvements already underway.

OCP Executive Director Michael Nash, a retired presiding judge of the Juvenile Court and longtime advocate for dual status youth, said, “I view this motion as an excellent opportunity for the OCP to work with all the relevant stakeholders to move this effort forward.”

“There are few children more in need of our collective hard work and commitment than those who are been impacted by both the child welfare and criminal justice systems,” Probation Director Terry McDonald said. “We believe that by strengthening our partnership and resolve, we can improve the lives of young people who have experienced far too much trauma and often neglect.”

“Having worked in both Probation and child welfare, I can tell you from firsthand experience that these youth have experienced trauma and need all the support we can provide,” added Department of Children and Family Services Director Bobby Cagle. “I look forward to working with my colleagues across County departments to ensure these youth have caring adults in their lives to provide them with a safe and loving environment.”