News Briefs for September 2003

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World Tobacco Law Advances

Proponents of an international treaty on tobacco control, which focuses on preventing youth smoking, are pushing for ratification now that the United States has surprised them with its support. Now those proponents worry that the tobacco industry will try to scuttle significant portions of the treaty.

The World Health Organization treaty, called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, was finalized on May 21. Just days before, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson surprised many when he announced that the United States would sign the treaty.

“The U.S. acceptance was definitely an exciting moment in the process,” says Patti Lynn, spokeswoman for Infact, a corporate watchdog and leading campaigner for the treaty. “The U.S. plays a very powerful role. People could breathe a sigh of relief.”

The framework must be ratified by 40 nations to become international law. (More than 40 have signed, but ratification is another step.) Once that happens, each ratifying country agrees to adhere to conditions in the framework, including tax and price policies aimed at reducing tobacco consumption; health warning labels that take up no less than 30 percent of a tobacco product’s display area; and a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising.

Thompson’s decision means that the U.S. delegation supports the current framework for consideration by the countries. Ultimately, Thompson said in May, it will be President Bush’s decision to sign it and send it to the U.S. Senate for ratification. Thompson said the treaty is on the president’s “personal radar screen.”

A “thorough review” of the treaty is “ongoing,” says HHS spokesman Bill Pierce. If the president signs the treaty, it would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate to ratify it.

The biggest holdouts in finalizing the treaty were Germany and the United States, Lynn says. “The U.S. brought a 14-member team to most talks. … They were by sheer number able to wear on the smaller teams from other countries,” urging them to reopen debate on various issues.

This ultimately failed, says Lynn, because most delegates felt that a new debate could unravel a process that had already taken three years. The United States did win insertion of a clause that exempts countries from the advertising ban if it violates a country’s constitution, which would appear to be the case in this country.

Lynn worries that U.S. tobacco companies will try to obstruct the treaty. Tobacco companies were banned from participating in the talks, but Lynn believes their influence will be substantial now that the treaty is being debated by various national governments. “This is where they will be able to use their influence,” says Lynn.

Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, has been fairly passive so far. “We’re pleased that the treaty is moving forward,” the company’s legislative counsel, Mark Berlin, told The Washington Post. “There’s some things we like very much, some we like less.”
These likes and dislikes are enumerated in a statement on a Philip Morris website. The company supports uniform formatting of warnings on packages, and backs the majority of the provisions about curbing youth access to tobacco. It vehemently opposes sections encouraging tax increases on cigarettes, liability and environmental lawsuits, and the exclusion of tobacco products from normal free trade rules. Philip Morris “intends to forcefully advocate that these proposals be dropped from the Framework Convention process,” the statement says.

Contact: Infact (617) 695-2525,; World Health Organization,; Philip Morris,

Better Fate for Immigrant Kids?

Activists are cautiously optimistic that the stark circumstances facing many immigrant children who enter the United States without parents will improve, thanks to a change in which federal agency handles them.

A report released in June by Amnesty International USA, entitled “Why Am I Here?” says many immigrant children are “detained in harsh conditions.”

The unaccompanied minors programs, once a division of the recently eliminated Immigration and Naturalization Service, became part of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on March 1.

Amnesty called the shift in jurisdiction “an important step in the right direction,” but cautioned that the “U.S. government has far to go to ensure that unaccompanied children are treated in accordance with international law and its own standards.”

“I’m not sure we’ll get it perfect,” said Wade Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, who sent a team in June to visit facilities holding unaccompanied minors. “But this agency has a history of helping kids who need out-of-home care.”

ACF estimates that 90,000 unaccompanied youth enter the country each year. The vast majority are quickly returned to their homelands, but between 5,000 and 6,000 enter the judicial system. They are now being assigned to ACF’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, whose 2003 budget includes $33 million for its division of unaccompanied youth.

ACF’s first census of its wards found that 570 of those in the program are being held in either a secure or nonsecure immigration detention facility, and 36 have been placed in foster care. ACF has authority to grant child custody to a relative in the United States, which it has done for more than 300 youths since March.

Such detention is unacceptable, says the Amnesty report, because too many of the children are detained for administrative reasons and are held in the same facilities as criminals. “They are not charged with any crime, but are often held for months or even years in punitive conditions pending resolution of their immigration status,” the report says.

Amnesty sent questionnaires to officials at 115 facilities that reportedly housed immigrant children. Only half of them reported that they separate unaccompanied minors from juvenile offenders. Based on conversations with 31 formerly detained children, Amnesty reported that it is not uncommon for the youths to be shackled, strip-searched and handcuffed.

Horn said there are 75 beds in secure facilities, and there is a legitimate reason for about 10 percent of the youth to be held in those facilities. He added, however, that some youth in criminal facilities should not be there.

“A relatively small number are actually in detention facility beds,” Horn said. “I don’t think [the program] is in great shape, but don’t get the impression that all of them are in juvenile detention facilities.

“Some youth don’t have criminal records, but have behavior problems” that are worsened by culture shock, he said. “Lots were sent to corrections facilities” under the immigration service. “We are trying to avoid that.”

Horn’s short-term priority for the program is to increase the number of beds available in nonsecure facilities, determine the appropriateness of each facility and expand the network of pro-bono lawyers willing to help children in the system. ACF has accessed 42 new beds for the program, he said.

Contact: Amnesty International USA (212) 807-8400; report available at

Youths Hogtied

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation has found that Mississippi’s two state training schools violate the constitutional and statutory rights of the adjudicated youth confined there. Among other violations, the report said that youth in the Oakley and Columbia facilities were often punished inappropriately – including being hogtied and placed naked in isolation rooms – and were forced to engage in religious activities.

Federal investigators also said youth did not have access to adequate medical and mental health services or proper education.

While Mississippi officials talk with the Justice Department about how to comply with federal law, the state announced that it will dismantle isolation rooms at the schools, discontinue using pepper spray, limit the use of physical exercise as punishment, and train staff in restraint use and on reporting abuse and neglect. The state also suspended several employees at the facilities and initiated an investigation following the federal review.

The 4-H Fight Club

The bizarre story from a 4-H club in Virginia this summer was a nightmare-come-true for program managers who rely largely on volunteers to keep control of overnight camps for kids:

Three teenage volunteers and one 20-year-old volunteer counselor were arrested in July on charges ranging from assault and battery to child abuse for allegedly organizing their own personal fight club – using campers as pugilists.

Prosecutors say the volunteers from a 4-H club in Bedford County, Va., coerced campers to fight each other while counselors placed bets. The group was staying at the Smith Mountain Lake 4-H Educational Center, 25 miles from Roanoke, Va.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) – which oversees the Smith Mountain Lake center along with five other American Camping Association-accredited sites – has assembled a task force to develop ways to ensure that the teen volunteer counselors and their adult supervisors are keeping kids safe.

“In 86 years, we haven’t had anything like this happen,” says VCE spokesman Stewart MacInnis. “With any luck it won’t happen again.”

The center is available for specialty camps and retreats for 4-H members and clubs around the state. Its rules require that all volunteer staff receive 24 hours of counselor training. But the center’s paid staff members provide educational components during the daytime and do not reside on the grounds. A security guard patrols the center at night.

While the task force explored long-term policy changes, VCE made immediate adjustments for the remainder of its summer programs. A paid extension service staff member who had completed the Master 4-H Camp Director Training Program was on site at all times, and was to make nightly checks of the lodges between 10 p.m. and midnight. (The latter policy was already on the books, but apparently not always followed.)

VCE also made security guards responsible for reporting questionable behavior by camp participants. According to the center’s program director, Becky Gilles, guards were previously responsible only for keeping out trespassers.

Gilles expects the task force to recommend “lots of changes” in the way campers and the young counselors who monitor them are supervised. For the time being, she said, “The center is making sure all staff involved have a better understanding of where people should be at all times. We need to make sure that the lines of communication are open all the time and everything is tightened up.”

Teachers Make More

Higher salaries and an overall bleak job market might make teaching positions look more appealing, according to the 2002 American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Survey Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends.

The survey examines state-by-state salary information for preschool through 12th-grade teachers, and compares the findings with past years and with salaries of other white-collar professions.

Data for the 2001-02 school year showed a national average teacher salary of $44,367, about 2.7 percent higher than the year before. California offered the highest average pay, $54,348, followed closely by Michigan and Connecticut.

In contrast, a study of salaries in 2000 by the Child Welfare League of America showed that in Michigan, a child welfare caseworker could expect to draw between $30,546 and $41,460. The new AFT study says the average pay for teachers in Michigan is $52,497.

According to a 2003 study by the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, 22 percent of all human service workers serving low-income communities earn less than $30,000.

In the teacher survey, states with the lowest average salaries include Oklahoma ($32,870), North Dakota ($32,468) and South Dakota ($31,383). New teachers in Alaska and New Jersey earn the highest average starting salaries: $36,035 and $35,311, respectively.

By recalculating the data in terms of purchasing power, AFT says the cumulative relative standard of living for teachers is the lowest it has been in 40 years.

Contact: AFT report available online at:

Briefly …

National Service Day? A coalition of nonprofits, business leaders and families of victims are proposing to make Sept. 11 a national day of volunteer service. The group, One Day’s Pay, says anecdotal evidence suggests that volunteerism peaked after the terrorist attacks. The nation’s calendar already includes Youth Service Day (April 16-18, 2004) and Make a Difference Day (Oct. 25, 2004).Youth Service America (YSA), which sponsors Youth Service Day, supports the One Day’s Pay proposal. It does not, however, want to change Youth Service Day to Sept. 11, preferring to keep a day focused on youth.

Dropout Scams:
The Texas State Education Agency has ordered Houston’s Independent School District to improve its record-keeping on dropout rates, and to remove leaders who permitted staff to falsify documents that seem to have kept the official rates inaccurately low. The seventh-largest public school district in the nation was run until 2000 by now-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, and was widely hailed for its low dropout rates. It was once considered a beacon for what President (and former Texas governor) George Bush called the “Texas miracle” in education.

College Waivers: A new law in New Jersey waives tuition for foster and homeless youth, ages 16 to 23, who attend college or vocational school in state. About 20 other states have some kind of tuition assistance for foster children, although New Jersey is among the first to include homeless youth. Gov. James E. McGreevey (D) signed the provision in July.

Un-Safe Space: Federal funding has been suspended for an 84-year-old charity that ran a nationally lauded homeless youth shelter in New York City, amid accusations of financial diversion. The shelter, run by the nonprofit Safe Space, was recognized for its comprehensive efforts to help transient youth, and received a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant for “special projects of national significance.” HUD auditors began looking into the agency’s accounting practices after Carl Siciliano told officials he was fired as shelter director after complaining that money marked for the shelter (which Safe Space closed last year) was redirected to fill other Safe Space budget deficits.

YMC-CLAY: Clay Aiken may have been America’s runner-up, but he is this summer’s undisputed champ at the A.E. Finley YMCA in Raleigh, N.C. The 24-year-old narrowly missed winning this year’s “American Idol,” FOX-TV’s enormously popular talent competition. Throughout the competition, Aiken thanked the YMCA, where he worked for six years. In appreciation for Aiken’s talent – and perhaps out of sympathy for his near-miss – many fans donated directly to the organization or indirectly by buying gear from Aiken’s official online merchandise store, (A percentage of the proceeds went to the YMCA). The donations, to A.E. Finley’s We Build People campaign, provided at least 24 summer-camp scholarships.