The Child Savers: Pain & Reward

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When Sid Johnson, 63, mounted his new black 1500cc Honda Goldwing touring motorcycle and zoomed off on a yearlong see-the-U.S.A. odyssey, he rode into the sunset of a distinguished career that culminated with 6 1/2 years as president of Prevent Child Abuse America (PCA America). Left behind are the headaches of fundraising and organizational identity that increasingly consume the workdays of national nonprofit executives in the children and youth field.

Johnson began his career as a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), Wilbur Cohen. Cohen remains the only secretary of what is now the Department of Health and Human Services to rise to the top post from the career civil service ranks.

In 1969, Sid Johnson joined the U.S. Senate staff of the newly elected Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), and soon became staff director of the Subcommittee on Children and Youth. His work for Mondale led to the enactment of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and to the first close congressional examination of federal family policies.

In early 1976, Johnson became executive director of the Family Impact Seminar (FIS), initially funded by the New York-based Foundation for Child Development. That summer, Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter tapped Johnson’s former boss, Mondale, for the vice-presidential slot on the ultimately successful ticket. Johnson was a shoo-in for a top slot when the Carter-Mondale administration began in January 1977. But, explains Johnson, he had to turn down that opportunity, having made a commitment to bring the Family Impact Seminar to life. Johnson stayed with the FIS until 1981. It continued, with considerable success, to inject family issues into domestic policy debates under Theodora Ooms, until folding as a national entity in 1999.

During the Carter administration, Johnson did advise HEW Secretary Joe Califano on the White House Conference on Families, an event that was later scuttled by the incoming administration of Ronald Reagan.

In 1981, Johnson became executive director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. In 1986, Johnson took the helm of the American Public Welfare Association, the national trade group for state and other public social service agencies. In 1998, the group changed its name to the American Public Human Services Association. Twelve years later, Johnson replaced Anne Cohn Donnelly at PCA America.

Chicago-based PCA America was founded in 1972 by Donna J. Stone as the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. In 1998 it changed its name and urged its state chapters (now numbering 39) to do business with their state’s name placed after “Prevent Child Abuse.” The group has 45 full-time employees and a budget this year of $5.8 million, down from its peak of $7.3 million in 2002.

Johnson and a bevy of admirers are proud of his accomplishments at PCA America. Tom Birch, executive director of the D.C.-based National Child Abuse Coalition, credits Johnson with “working very hard” to advance the cause of preventing abuse.

Child abuse prevention, says Johnson, “has no face on it,” with the public once believing that in all but the most extreme cases of abuse, a family’s social pathology is no one else’s business. Johnson points out that 30 years ago, only 10 percent of the public recognized child abuse prevention as an urgent matter. Now 90 percent believe so, although that sense of urgency has failed to carry over into the public policy realm. In tandem with the shift in public attitude came an inevitable willingness by child protection agencies to widen the investigatory net – unleashing a national debate on when to remove children from their parents, a debate that continues to dominate the child welfare field’s policy discourse.

One particularly acidic critic, however, is that scourge of the child welfare establishment, Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR). In an e-mail about PCA America, Wexler writes, “When it comes to what causes child maltreatment and what to do about it, no organization has been more consistently wrong. As a result, they have contributed to the climate of hysteria around child maltreatment that has torn apart thousands of families, traumatized untold numbers of children through needless foster care placement, and overwhelmed child protection systems, making it even less likely that those systems will find and rescue the relatively few children who really are brutally abused and really do need to be taken from their parents.”

To the contrary, says Johnson, the question is, “How do you persuade the country on why it is in their interest” to aid kids and their families at high risk of abuse and neglect? Johnson estimates an annual national tab of $94 billion in future social welfare, health and criminal justice costs as the price of not adequately and promptly addressing childhood maltreatment.
New Frame, New Circle

Concurrent with Johnson’s departure, PCA America is undergoing changes in its organizational profile. One of Johnson’s successes there was nurturing the Circle of Parents, a self-help oriented program that works closely with PCA America’s state chapters. Donna Whitehead, chairwoman of the group, says, “We were a little leery” of PCA America when the two groups linked up in 1999. But she says the partnership and working with Johnson have proven that it was the right move. Today the Circle of Parents is a separate nonprofit. (More on that below.)

Another PCA America project, Healthy Families America (HFA), is setting up regional offices within PCA America’s corporate structure. HFA began in 1992 and now operates in 35 states. HFA describes itself as “a voluntary home visitation program designed to reduce child abuse and neglect, childhood health problems and juvenile delinquency by reaching typically young, single, first-time parents following births.” That screening of new parents is typically administered in conjunction with each state agency responsible for abuse, neglect and its prevention. In Indiana, for example, the Family and Social Service Administration partners with the state hospitals to screen some 40,000 newborns each year. Several thousand families of newborns are then referred to programs that “help families learn positive parenting skills.”

Funding HFA’s budget of $1 million is the McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac Foundation (which just kicked in another million dollars over two years). The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York; the Foresters, a fraternal group based in Toronto; the Ronald McDonald House Charities and HHS’s Children’s Bureau are PCA America’s other major funders. The HFA remains PCA America’s crown jewel, with its regional resource centers providing technical assistance orchestrated from Chicago by Barbara Rawn. Two of the projected four centers are now operational: a Midwest center in Pontiac, Mich., directed by Kathleen Strader, and a Western center in Tucson, Ariz., directed by Kate Whitaker.

In the midst of its leadership change, PCA America is also “reframing” child abuse issues and how it communicates prevention messages to the public. To that end, it has hired the children and youth fields’ reframer-in-chief, Susan Nall Bales, formerly with the Benton Foundation/Connect for Kids and now doing business as the president of FrameWorks Institute. In April, PCA America and 70 of the field’s top leaders convened for a “summit on reframing child abuse and neglect.” It was held in Washington with Bales serving as facilitator.

It will take more than reframing, however, to overcome child abuse prevention’s pigeonhole in the public mind. Child abuse, says Johnson is “caught in the family bubble,” with the government and the community taking too little responsibility for prevention. Despite three decades of public service campaigns on child abuse prevention by PCA America and the Advertising Council, PCA America’s Kevin Kirkpatrick, vice president for communications, writes in a recent report that “the advocates have been unable to convince the public that prevention is possible and to motivate positive behavior change, at either the individual or societal levels, in support of prevention.” The lack of understanding of the issues, especially by “the cynical middle class,” he writes, “results in child abuse prevention being seen as another ‘handout’ for the poor.”

One group that wasn’t at the reframing summit is the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the Alexandria, Va.-based behemoth of the child endangerment business. NCMEC has a staff of 245, spent over $29 million in 2002 and hauled in $20.4 million in fiscal 2002 appropriations. A recent analysis by PCA America shows that “national television and radio news broadcasts during the period 1993 to mid-2002 carried 664 stories on the subject of child abductions and 282 on child molestation, while carrying only four stories on ‘positive parenting’ and 67 on child abuse prevention.”

Kirkpatrick, the author of the study, says NCMEC wasn’t invited to the summit because “they’re peripheral to us.” But not peripheral to national media or the Bush White House, which has largely ignored child abuse while embracing the cause of aiding sexually exploited and missing children. Child abuse advocates can reframe away from sensational cases (some 1,000 kids do die every year from abuse, according to the National Abuse and Neglect Data System 2002), but Kirkpatrick acknowledges that “sensationalism serves [NCMEC’s] purposes more than ours.”

The board of 32 is moving quickly to fill Johnson’s job. One of the finalists is John Holton, PCA America’s vice president and director of its National Center for Child Abuse Prevention Research. He now serves as interim president. Most of Holton’s work has been in Chicago, including stints with the Better Boys Foundation and the Cook County Juvenile Court.

Circle of Anonymity

The reframing history of PCA America is straight ahead compared to the circumambulating course taken by Circle of Parents. The group is a breakaway from the Claremont, Calif.-based Parents Anonymous (PA). Founded in 1969, PA claims to be “the nation’s oldest child abuse prevention and family strengthening organization” – a true assertion, give or take a margin of error of a century. American Humane, now based in Denver, was founded in 1877.

Since 1992, PA has been run by Lisa Pion-Berlin, who oversees a full-time staff of about 16 and a budget of about $3.5 million (2002). Unlike the congenial and open Johnson, Pion-Berlin is a controversial figure who runs a tight and secretive organization while relentlessly pushing for parental involvement in all aspects of child abuse prevention. She is, says a close observer, a one-note-Johnny on that issue. An anonymous senior federal official who has dealt with her for years calls her “autocratic” and a my-way-or-the-highway manager.

So painful was Pion-Berlin’s grip that in 1999 a revolt broke out, and when it was over, 16 of PA’s 23 state affiliates took to the highway to form the National Family Support Roundtable. Soon thereafter, the rebels were securely sheltered at PCA America’s Chicago headquarters. Whitehead recalls the struggle as “really ugly.” Renamed the Circle of Parents in 2002, the nonprofit group will still be housed at PCA America and has hired Cyndi Savage as executive director (for about $70,000 per year). Formerly a PCA America staffer, Savage has been working with the newly incorporated nonprofit for the past two years.

Not surprisingly, relations between the Chicago-based group and Parents Anonymous remain testy. Close-quarter conflict is an annual occurrence on Capitol Hill, where Congress has appointed itself as the arbiter of organizational effectiveness through its appropriations earmarking of who is worthy of funding and for how much. With Congress – or at least with Senate Appropriation’s Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Pion-Berlin has the political juice. A dozen years ago PA was just another group on Congress’ annual list of organizations that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) should fund for an unspecified amount. But no more. For several years PA has won a $3 million earmark in the budget of the hapless OJJDP. Last year, like many semi-permanent ornaments on the OJJDP Christmas tree, PA was cut back to a still-hefty $2 million. Keeping Parents Anonymous afloat are Stevens, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and anonymous staffers on Capitol Hill.
While PA’s tax returns ending in September 2002 show total lobbying expenses of $28,219, U.S. Senate records show that it paid its lobbying firm of Blank Rome LLP more than $40,000 in 2003. That year Blank Rome absorbed another firm, Dyer Elks & Joseph, P.C., which specializes in earmarks for Alaska clients, including Parents Incorporated, a nonprofit concerned with special education.

Circle of Parents, as part of PCA America, has benefited from congressional earmarks as well: Over the past four years it has received $300,000 from the OJJDP piggy bank twice and $600,000 once (2003). Circle’s lobbyist, Janis Guerney, was paid more than $20,000 in 2003. Even in the poignant matter of child abuse, when it comes to a Congress that’s for sale to the highest bidder, you get what you pay for.

PA’s earmark in 2001 was directed by Congress for “local community partnerships.” How many partners PA actually has is a mystery. Barbara Meltzer, the media contact for PA, says it has “60 something” partners, which sponsor 400 parent groups weekly and 200 groups for kids. Pion-Berlin counts PA’s “accredited and local affiliates” at 267, with 850 weekly meetings of parent groups. PA’s 2001 tax return says it is “overseeing the operation of approximately 2,100 parent self-help groups.”

Circle of Parents says that 28 or 29 state chapters are affiliates.

Pion-Berlin spent years fending off an evaluation of PA that would require dipping into PA’s earmarked funds. Then OJJDP awarded $900,000 over three years to the Oakland, Calif.-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency to conduct an evaluation. Results are expected next year, says national council President Barry Krisberg.

In the tax year ending in September 2002, just $204,104 of PA’s $4.75 million in revenue came from direct public support. Also in 2002, Pion-Berlin’s compensation totaled at least $388,666. When asked about her earnings, she says, “The board sets my salary.” The tax returns list a six-member board, including Pion-Berlin.

By comparison, in 2002 Johnson’s salary and benefits came to a substantial $219,186 – still only about 57 percent of Pion-Berlin’s compensation during the same time. In addition, in the early 1990s Pion-Berlin set up a side business known as the Centre on Families and Social Issues, described in The Bermuda Sun as “an organization which provides consulting services, trains professionals, fosters interagency collaboration and coordination, formulates policy initiatives and engages in research endeavors.” Pion-Berlin says the entity no longer exists.

No matter how you view the compensation, it’s a long way from the days, 25 years ago, when Pion-Berlin was an intern at the National Network for Youth in D.C.

Despite the child abuse field’s internal pains and questionable allocation of rewards, most national leaders are bullish about the future. One leader who attended the PCA America reframing summit is Teresa Rafael, executive director of the Seattle-based National Alliance of Children’s Trust and Prevention Funds. She finds within the field “great optimism and hope. … We know what to do.” The challenge, insists Rafael (who was paid $92,400 as a consultant to PA in 2002), is winning adequate funding and building the public will to prevent child abuse.

But come November, many of those leaders may wish that they, too, had joined Johnson in trading in the conflicted world of child-saving for the serene art of motorcycle maintenance.

Contact: Prevent Child Abuse America and Circle of Parents (312)663-3520,,; Parents Anonymous
(909) 621-6184,