California could impose new standards for court-ordered parenting classes under legislation meant to address the lack of regulations for services often mandated for people suspected of child abuse and neglect.

The legislation, written by Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), would require that any parenting classes ordered by judges in child welfare cases be evidence-based, “culturally competent” and provided by qualified professionals.

In findings detailed in the proposed law, Bryan quoted a Times investigation published last month that found that court-ordered parenting classes go largely unregulated in California and that counties are not required to use evidence-based services or meet any sort of standards when assigning programming.

Although national research shows that some parenting classes can help prevent child abuse and keep families together, the Times investigation revealed that in California, they often amount to an over-prescribed bureaucratic remedy with no clear track record of success.

“The fact that [quality] is not ever measured or evaluated or considered nearly as much as it is just making sure parents complete them … I think we’re doing a disservice,” Bryan told The Times this week, calling January’s investigation “illuminating.”

Court-ordered classes have been factors in cases in which children were returned to the custody of their guardians and later tortured and murdered. The lack of scrutiny can put some of California’s most vulnerable children — those whose parents are fighting for custody while under investigation by protective services — at risk of more abuse, the Times investigation found, based on interviews with more than 20 child welfare experts including social workers, attorneys, retired judges, parents and providers.

In the case of 4-year-old Noah Cuatro of Palmdale, who died in 2019, his parents, Ursula Juarez and Jose Cuatro, were ordered to complete parenting classes in 2017 in an effort to regain custody of him after prior allegations of abuse.

Their completion of those classes was a factor considered when a Los Angeles County Superior Court commissioner ruled in 2018 that it was safe for Noah to return to their care. Juarez and Cuatro were later charged with Noah’s torture and murder.

Records show that Cuatro attended classes at a church that were led by a pastor, not a licensed therapist. Juarez attended classes at a community resource center. Neither of the programs were ranked highly by a state-funded database meant to act as a key tool for local officials to rely on when selecting services to ensure child safety.

Bryan, who grew up in foster care and has written past legislation on child welfare reform, said the state has failed to provide “meaningful” family reunification services, disproportionately harming children of color and those who live in poverty.

The state should not rely on parenting classes amid a “dearth of information” about their quality and effectiveness, he said, whether that means keeping children safe from harm or potentially “forever separating a child from their parents.”

In addition to new evidence-based standards, Bryan’s law, if approved by the Legislature and governor, would establish a tracking system to measure the outcome of parenting class services and require that counties detail data about success rates and service providers.

The Times investigation found that the state does not ensure that parent education programs meet any sort of standards, allows parents facing abuse allegations to take classes that experts have deemed low quality and does not require counties to use a service database launched by the state years ago.

There is no cost projection yet for the bill, and lawmakers will probably be cautious about approving new spending as the state faces a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

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