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Abused children in California foster care, welfare systems should not be imprisoned for self-defense

This story appeared on Calmatters

Students line up in the courtyard at Stege Elementary School in Richmond on Feb. 6, 2023. Photo by Shelby Knowles for CalMatters

In summary

A legislative proposal, Senate Bill 545, would prevent victimized children in foster care or the child welfare system from being tried as an adult if they commit a violent crime against their abuser. Two survivors say the bill provides overdue recognition of a systemic failure to protect vulnerable youth.

Guest Commentary written by

Jarrett Harper

Jarrett Harper

Jarrett Harper is the founder of Better Days, a nonprofit organization focused on ending the foster care to prison pipeline. He is an ambassador for Represent Justice’s “Just Mercy” campaign.

Sara Kruzan

Sara Kruzan

Sara Kruzan is a fellow at Human Rights for Kids. She was a founding member of Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network and a lead advocate for Proposition 35 in 2012.

As childhood survivors of trafficking and sexual abuse, we were preyed upon by adults with sinister intentions. They exploited our vulnerabilities as children in the foster care and child welfare systems. 

All we ever wanted is what all children want: care, love and belonging. Child predators know that, so they seek out children with histories of neglect and trauma. That made us easy targets. We endured unspeakable and repeated acts of abuse and exploitation at the hands of our abusers and traffickers.    

Later, while still children, both of us killed our abusers for the harm they inflicted upon us and to make sure they couldn’t harm any other child. We were both tried as adults and sentenced to life without parole, condemned to die in prison. 

While we did our best to hope that justice would eventually be served, neither of us had the expectation of leaving prison alive. Thanks to the efforts of advocates, attorneys, multiple California governors – and our resolve to never lose faith – our sentences were commuted

Today, we are both parents. Because of our original prison sentences, this is an opportunity we never thought we would have. We are working with state Sen. Susan Rubio, a survivor of domestic violence herself, to ensure that what happened to us does not happen to other children in California.

Unfortunately, we see a similar pattern time and time again around the country. Children who have been failed by multiple systems that were supposed to protect them are left vulnerable to trafficking and abuse. Most of these children have already experienced trauma in their home lives.

It should come as no surprise then that some of these children take action against the adults who preyed upon them. Self-defense laws provide inadequate protection when they commit acts of violence against their abusers. Prosecutors often argue that because these children planned their actions, or because they don’t deem the threat to the children as “imminent,” self-defense protections do not apply. 

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Susan Rubio

D

Susan Rubio

State Senate, District 22 (West Covina)


Susan Rubio

State Senate, District 22 (West Covina)

How she voted 2021-2022
Liberal
Conservative

District 22 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem

48%
GOP

22%
No party

23%

Campaign Contributions

Sen. Susan Rubio has taken at least
$59,950
from the Energy & Natural Resources
sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents
15%
of her total campaign contributions.

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This is what happened in both of our cases.

The California Legislature has the opportunity to begin to right these wrongs. Senate Bill 545 will stop children from being tried in adult court when they commit acts of violence against their abusers. If this legislation becomes law, instead of condemning child victims to lengthy prison terms, they will remain in the juvenile system to receive treatment and services. 

Put simply, this bill recognizes that children trapped in sexually abusive or exploitative situations may respond with violence towards their abusers. Blame should not be solely placed on the child victim, and adult prisons are certainly no place for them. 

This legislation recognizes that we have failed these children by allowing them to fall prey to evil people.

As the great Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats our children.” This revelation becomes even clearer when talking about vulnerable children who are victims of sexual abuse and trafficking. When thinking about the children who would be affected by this legislation, do not consider them as someone else’s children, but our children.

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