Last Updated on April 14, 2023 by BVN

Image: Chuck Bibbs

In 2011, Bobbie Butts lost custody of her children after receiving an indictment for arrest and placed in custody.

“I didn’t think I could ever get them back. So, I just wanted to do everything I could to get them back and try to make sure that the visitations were meaningful [and] purposeful for my children,” Butts shared.

While her children were in foster care, Butts made it her mission to regain custody. She never missed a family planning meeting, a court date or a drug test, even when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy between 2013 and 2015. She attended family visits and spent time with her kids as much as she was allowed.

“I just stayed at it every day for six years until I got my case closed and my children returned to me,” said Butts.

In 2016, when Philando Castile was killed by police officers during a traffic stop in St. Louis, MO, Butts remembers coaching her 11-year-old son on how to be safe as a young Black child, who Butts said looked more like he was 16 years old. She took her son to a rally in downtown Riverside organized by Terrance Stewart, who was part of an organization called the Inland Congregations United for Change and All of Us or None (AOUON), a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights of formerly incarcerated persons.

Bobbie Butts sits in her office at Starting Over Inc. in Riverside, CA as she discusses ongoing campaigns to support families in their effort to regain custody of their children. (Photo by Jeremiah Hill)

One day while Butts was working as an executive administrator for the Riverside Black Chamber of Commerce and still working to regain custody of her children, Vonya Quarles walked in.

Quarles is a founding member of the Riverside Chapter of All of Us or NONE (AOUON) and the co-founder of Starting Over Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports and provides services to people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

Quarles asked the president of the chamber if he hired formerly incarcerated individuals and he gestured to Butts, confirming that he did. He asked Butts to attend a few events and meetings hosted by Quarles and her organization, AOUON.

When Butts showed up to the AOUON meeting, she recognized a lot of familiar faces from the rally in downtown Riverside and she felt comfortable in this space with this community of organizers.

“All this time, I had just been thinking that I’m just a bad person, born in a f—–d up situation — and it’s not [that]. It’s these laws and these policies and these racist systems,” Butts explained. Despite her best efforts to regain custody of her children, Butts realized that as hard as she tried to get them back, unjust institutions would find a way to separate her from her kids.

With the knowledge she learned from the grassroots organizations and their meetings, Butts continued to navigate the system by studying laws and learning from other social justice advocates. She began regaining custody of her children in 2014 and eventually regained custody of all of her children by 2018 when her case was closed.

Butts poses for a recent picture with four of her children. Absent from the photo is Butt’s other son who passed away, but who she calls her “own personal angel” (Image courtesy of Bobbie Butts).

Today Butts spends her time supporting formerly incarcerated individuals and families impacted by the system through outreach, educating them on laws, and teaching them how to advocate on behalf of themselves and their loved ones.

In 2017, Butts was awarded the Aric Isom Award by AOUON for embodying his spirit. Isom was the cofounder of AOUON who passed away in 2016. Isom was an activist across Riverside who was a champion for several issues including criminal justice.

Now, as the Assistant Director of Family Reunification at Starting Over Inc. and Project Coordinator of the Family Reunification, Equity and Empowerment (FREE) Project, Butts has supported dozens of families in their fight to reunite with their loved ones and spearheaded the advocacy efforts to pass Senate Bill 354 (SB 354).

Ending inherent bias against children of system impacted families

On Jan. 1, 2022, SB 354 took effect after the California State Senate and the Assembly unanimously approved the bill. Authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland) and co-authors Eloise Gómez Reyes (D-Colton) and Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), SB 354 eliminates obstacles that restrict children from being placed in the custody of a relative caregiver who may have a past conviction (unrelated to children). 

The law previously prevented someone from caring for a child, even if their past conviction was old and posed no risk to the safety of a child. Now, the bill will “authorize the court to order placement with a relative, regardless of the status of any criminal exemption…if the court finds that the placement does not pose a risk to the health and safety of the child.”

After a few years of advocating on behalf of the bill, organizations like Starting Over Inc., Underground Scholars and the Children’s Law Center of California hope to see change in communities of color who are impacted at a higher rate by a criminal justice system that punishes people with criminal convictions.

Susan Abrams, Director of Policy and Training at Children’s Law Center of California, explained that one of the reasons her organization advocated for the passage of this bill was because of the potential benefits to children and families of color.

“If you think about the racism that exists within the criminal justice system, and then if you’re using a criminal history to evaluate whether a caregiver can be a safe home, then you’re bringing that racism into the child welfare system,” Abrams stated. 

“The laws that prohibit placement of children with relatives because of criminal history are inherently racist and have an inherent bias against children and families of color, and are stopping children of color from being able to be placed with their families.”

Supporters, advocates and families marched in a “Transform CPS” rally organized by A New Way of Life Reentry Project, Riverside All of Us or None, Crip Justice, Family Reunification, Equity & Empowerment (FREE) Project and the Underground Scholars Initiative on May 4, 2022 to support mothers who are separated from their children due to CPS and/or incarceration (Image courtesy of Facebook).

According to a 2019 California Child Welfare Indicators Project (CCWIP) report, Black children account for about 6% of the child population in the state, but make up 18% of the child population in foster care. Latino children account for about 47% of the total child population, but account for an estimated 53% of children placed in foster care. 

Black and Latino children are roughly 2.8 and 1.2 times, respectively, more likely to be exposed to the foster care system than their white counterparts.

“In California, we have children who languish in the foster care system, many of them are Black and brown children, but more disproportionately, we see Black children. And because [the system] looks at the criminal conviction history as being indicative of how much a person can care and love a child, it’s particularly problematic,” Quarles explained.

“Because as Black people we’ve been disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and so we’re piling on, and it becomes a generational problem that we have to address.”

The latest data from a point in time analysis from CCWIP as of July 1, 2022 revealed that more than 53,000 children are currently in the system, 11,348 of which are Black children and 28,461 are Latino children.

In San Bernardino County, nearly 6,000 children have been identified as having placement within CWS/CMS. In Riverside County, more than 3,300 children were counted within the system. While Riverside and San Bernardino are the fourth and fifth largest counties in the state, respectively, these counties have a higher number of children within CWS/CMS than counties with larger populations like San Diego and Orange County.

Next to Los Angeles, which has more than 18,700 children within the foster care system, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties have some of the highest numbers of children in the welfare system compared to all 58 counties.

Claiming power, building coalitions and creating change 

While working to obtain a degree in sociology at the University of California, Riverside as part of the Underground Scholars Initiative, Fidel Chagolla’s daughter was removed from his care by Family and Children’s Services in 2016.

Chagolla got involved with the Underground Scholars Initiative, an academic program that supports formerly incarcerated persons as they navigate higher education. Chagolla previously spent 10 years in state prison and six years in the California Youth Authority.

As a volunteer and organizer with AOUON, Chagolla met Quarles and Butts who supported him as he worked to get his daughter back in his custody.

“I met Bobbie Butts. I met Vonya Quarles, and just meeting them . . . ,” Chagolla paused as he swallowed his emotions. “I shared my lived experiences about what my difficulties were, what was going on in my life and they believed in my lived experiences. They were willing to listen to me, they were willing to empathize with me and they were willing to understand what was going on, without having judgment.”

Chagolla described how people are judged when they have a case with Child Protective Services (CPS) and how they are often cast off as being the “worst of the worst.”

Despite his best efforts to regain custody, Chagolla’s parental rights were terminated because of his past felony convictions from his adolescence. At six months old, his daughter was quickly adopted as a result of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, a law that seeks to shorten the length of time a child spends in the foster care system. 

“They had her with an adoptive family within the first year, as they were telling me to complete the programs and do all these different things that were required of me, and I was doing them,” Chagolla said. “I start[ed] sharing all this with Bobby and she was like, ‘why don’t we create a bill concept?’ And I was like, ‘what’s that?’”

Chagolla and Butts worked to create a section under the bill alongside AOUON Riverside, Starting Over Inc. and the Children’s Law Center. More than a dozen other organizations co-sponsored SB 354 on behalf of families who are impacted by laws that remove children from homes due to past convictions, like Chagolla.

“This is a barrier…for people that have been incarcerated, for families that have been justice impacted and for families that were trying to reunify with their children,” Chagolla asserted. “This is the barrier that we want to work toward changing or bring more exposure to [and] bring more awareness to in our communities.”

The work isn’t over yet

For two years, Chagolla and these organizations educated the masses on the importance of passing this bill. They made legislative visits, took trips to Sacramento, shared their personal stories and lived experiences. After two years of advocacy, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill on Oct. 8, 2021. The bill took effect in January 2022.

Today, Chagolla is enrolled in graduate school at the University of Redlands and still fighting for his daughter. Although Chagolla does not have custody of his daughter, he is able to see her a few times a month, provide things for her and spend time with her.

Fidel Chagolla poses for a picture in front of his research project on “Women’s Health Issues as They Age with HIV” at the 32th Annual Research Symposium in Riverside, CA in August 2019 (Image courtesy of Facebook).

As an organizer with AOUON, Chagolla feels good about the work he does to help other formerly incarcerated people learn about their rights and help them navigate the process of reentry.

With the passage of SB 354, now comes the practical application of the bill by social workers and child advocates. After the bill took effect, Butts began leading a series of educational presentations about SB 354 for family and legal aid agencies.

“It’s very important work. And we deserve to be with our children and we deserve to keep our families together instead of keeping them separated because we love our children,” Chagolla expressed.

The struggle to reunite families is an ongoing challenge that Butts continues to work on as she leads workshops and organizes rallies to raise awareness of current unjust policies and practices. On November 16, Butts will be marching alongside supporters and organizations such as A Mother’s Voice, Crip Justice, FREE Project (Starting Over Inc.) and Time for Change in a rally set to take place in front of the San Bernardino Juvenile Court.

Where we go from here 

This concludes the Starting Over series, but not the ongoing efforts of local organizations and advocates working for justice on behalf of the communities, families and individuals who are impacted by the system and who seek to reenter society.

The four-part series explored the complexities of the criminal justice system in California, especially how it impacts people of color. Michael Jurado, a formerly incarcerated individual, shared his journey from his first encounter with the system as an adolescent to his life now as a Participatory Defense specialist who dedicates his time to supporting others who have been system impacted. 

Additionally, this series introduced a number of local organizations in the Inland Empire and beyond, like the Bay Area’s De-Bug, who are working to transform the criminal justice system and how formerly incarcerated people navigate the courts. The practice of participatory defense as a community-developed tool to present social biographies in court during sentencing has been impactful for people across the U.S. 

The Starting Over series has examined the way in which local agencies like Starting Over Inc. and All of Us or None have strived to support system impacted communities through advocacy, education and providing services.

We encourage you to follow future criminal justice related reporting at Black Voice News and the IE Voice as we delve into other issues of importance and impact to our community.

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at or via twitter @_breereeves.