California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris launched a new initiative focused on protecting children — especially those in the foster system, who she said are vulnerable to unscrupulous caregivers and identity thieves.
At a news conference in Los Angeles on Thursday, Harris, a candidate for U.S. Senate, cited grim statistics about the long-term consequences of abuse and neglect, including some studies that found as many as 80 percent of inmates were once involved in the child welfare system.
The initiative, she said, "will continue our smart-on-crime approach by addressing theroot causes of crime, including our broken foster care system, and making certain that California's children receive full protection under the law and equal opportunities to succeed."
In a letter to foster care authorities throughout the state, she highlighted the office's increased scrutiny of private foster care contractors, including cases in which agency leaders have been accused of misusing taxpayer money to enrich themselves.
The Times previously reported on financial improprieties among the contractors. The state's foster family system — the largest in the nation — has become more costly and dangerous as it has come to rely on the nonprofit contractors to care for 5,000 foster youths.
Harris said the initiative will be led by five lawyers assigned to a newly established bureau that would also be investigating reports her office is receiving about identity theft involving foster youths. They are particularly vulnerable, she said, because they move from home to home frequently and their personal details are shared along the way.
Foster youths are more likely to drop out, fail the high school exit exam, change schools and suffer from disabilities than their peers, research has shown. The state's revised school finance system has shifted more dollars to help those students.
Youths who have been involved with the child welfare system also make up more than half of children involved in commercial sexual exploitation, according to Harris.
In addition to the focus on foster youths, the Department of Justice's new children's bureau will expand work to combat elementary student truancy; Harris launched annual statewide reports on the problem three years ago. The department has launched a new program with UC Santa Barbara to develop pilot programs to improve attendance, although which school districts will participate has not yet been disclosed.
Harris deflected questions about her recent announcement to seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer, but political analysts have noted that the former San Francisco district attorney has been appearing in Los Angeles more frequently, and she noted during the news conference that she now lives here part-time.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is considering a run against Harris amid complaints from Latino lawmakers that Democratic leaders are not doing enough for the fast-growing Latino electorate.
At her side on Thursday was Thomas Sainz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Harris made a point of noting that the majority of California's children are Latino.
Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.