Beleaguered at the League

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For Democratic-leaning human service groups like the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), the inauguration of President George W. Bush for a second term and his tight-fisted fiscal 2006 domestic budget are already causing shock waves. That, along with the steady decline in philanthropic support for liberal national children and youth advocacy organizations, is causing a tsunami on the left bank of the Beltway.

Ten months before the 2000 election, CWLA hired Shay Bilchik to serve as CEO. He had been administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention from 1994 to 2000, making him the Clinton administration’s sole political appointee to that post. Previously, attorney Bilchik spent most of his career running the Dade County, Fla., prosecutor’s office for Janet Reno.

It seemed like an astute move at the time. But neither political fate nor the national economy has been kind to CWLA or Bilchik.

Running a large national nonprofit focused on the needs of disadvantaged kids is a challenge, even in the balmiest of times. Running one as complex as CWLA in the rough social policy seas of the Bush administration and a GOP-controlled Congress is akin to encountering the perfect storm. In federal tax returns for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2003, CWLA reported a loss of $3,419,896, while spending $20,754,542. Since Bilchik took over, his critics charge, the league’s assets have declined by as much as to $15 million.

That’s not quite right, says Bilchik, who acknowledges some losses. About $4.4 million of the losses came from CWLA’s endowment, now about $9 million – a decline experienced by thousands of nonprofits fortunate enough to even have stock market investments. He says “corrective action” was taken a year ago, and that CWLA has been “in the black for the last 11 months.”

A review of CWLA’s annual reports going back to 1997 and its most recent tax return does show a decline in revenue and assets. For example, total assets in 1998 were $19,539,546. As of Sept. 30, 2003, assets totaled $13,016,728, a decline of about 33 percent.

CWLA membership doesn’t come cheap, with dues from public and nonprofit agencies bringing in $5,891,884 in fiscal 2002. Now, CWLA’s annual dues schedule is up sharply, while membership is down by about 150 agencies, from a total of 1,126 in May 2000. Factors contributing to the decline include member agencies merging, going out of business, and operating in the red and unwilling or unable to pay stiff dues. Bilchik’s predecessor, the late David Liederman, was the entrepreneurial master of the special deal – some so special that CWLA carried agencies in arrears for years on its active membership rolls. Bilchik ended that practice.

The decline in membership was also exacerbated by a decision by the New York-based Council on Accreditation, a consortium of 10 sponsoring and 14 supporting national groups whose imprimatur for nonprofit service providers is required by many state child welfare licensing agencies. Since 1975, CWLA had collected pass-through fees for COA’s accreditation work. In recent years, CWLA has collected about $1.8 million annually paid by member agencies for that purpose.

Now, however, member agencies pay COA fees directly, based on a sliding scale that begins at $4,275 and rises with the size of the agency.

The staff in CWLA’s Washington office and six regional offices, which peaked several years ago at 150, is down to about 110. The layoffs and mandatory furloughs of the professional staff have hurt CWLA’s reputation and added to Bilchik’s woes. Among the recently departed are two of CWLA’s most senior officials – Bob McKeagney, vice president for program operations, and Skip Stuck, the Boston-based vice president for membership.

McKeagney spent 20 years working in Maine, rising from caseworker to deputy commissioner in the state’s Department of Human Services. As CWLA’s deputy, he oversaw its work in child welfare, juvenile justice, behavioral health and youth development. Like Bilchik, he’s a detail-oriented guy. Says one CWLA colleague: “He made perfect the enemy of the possible.”

McKeagney is best known as CWLA’s expert witness, brought in by its public agency members to defend them against class-action lawsuits in which states such as New Jersey and Georgia have been charged with inadequate standards of care and performance for children in public care.

McKeagney is now chief operating officer of Eckerd Youth Alternatives, a 35-year-old nonprofit based in Clearwater, Fla., that operates 41 programs in seven states and is directed by Karen Waddell.

As for Stuck: In an organization dominated by child welfare’s management class, he provided a strong voice within CWLA for the field’s underpaid, overworked and much-abused – especially when being vilified by politicians and the press – program managers and rank-and-file youth workers.

The departures of Stuck and McKeagney have added to the growing dissatisfaction with Bilchik’s leadership. The staff’s “morale sucks,” says one close observer. In an interview in January, Marty Sinnott, CEO of Chicago-based Kids Hope United, said “all we’ve seen is talent leave.” Grouses one hyperbolic long-departed staffer, “Everyone over 50 is gone.” Sinnott, a new member of CWLA’s 49-member board, has been Bilchik’s most public critic. He lists CWLA’s “urgent questions” as its financial health, staff caliber, membership services and the advancement of its members’ policy and business interests. For those perceived deficiencies, says Sinnott, Bilchik “has a unique responsibility. ... There’s no way around that.”

There is also no way around CWLA’s organizational facts of life. Is it simply a trade association pushing for its membership’s best business interests, or primarily an advocacy organization for kids?

All pontificating about the greater good aside, pursuing business interests is the modus operandi of Washington’s vast trade association industry. But, like so many social welfare-oriented national groups, CWLA aspires to be more. In its 1999 strategic plan, it set as its No. 1 goal to “create a national climate that makes the well-being of children, youth and families a priority.”

You don’t have to be a weatherman to know that national priorities – as determined by the actions of the voters, the Bush administration and Congress – have blown in the opposite direction. No reasonable person can blame Bilchik or CWLA for that chill wind. Even Bilchik skeptic Sharon Pierce, CEO of The Villages in Indiana, acknowledges that “CWLA’s problems reflect the challenges facing child welfare and the nonprofit community.” But as current unrest within the AFL-CIO over the leadership of its president, John Sweeney, makes clear, bad outcomes lead to poor long-term job prospects for the person at the top.

Bilchik hasn’t exactly been hiding in his modest office near Capitol Hill. A vigorous supporter of working closely with other national groups, Bilchik chairs the National Human Service Assembly’s National Collaboration for Youth, which has 50 members, ranging from the YMCA and Camp Fire USA to the Job Corps-boosting Joint Action in Community Service. He and CWLA’s five-person lobbying staffs, led by Elizabeth Meitner, are a constant presence in the chilly-to-kids’-issues halls of Congress. When it comes to children’s issues, Bilchik says, “Congress turns to us.”

Irv Katz, the National Assembly’s CEO, says Bilchik “is doing a great job,” as chairman of the Collaboration for Youth and has just been re-elected to a second two-year term. “When senior officials and executives hear Shay’s involved, they’re willing to participate” in an endeavor, Katz says.

For now, Bilchik has weathered the storm. In a late January meeting (attended by about 40 members, including Sinnott), the board went into an ominous executive session without Bilchik or other staff. Afterward, the board adopted a “unanimous resolution” backing Bilchik’s leadership.

New board President George W. Swan III, eastern campus president of Wayne County Community College in Detroit, acknowledges that CWLA “had to regroup,” but he is decidedly upbeat, citing CWLA’s “clean audit,” the board’s backing of Bilchik and the decision to create a new chief operating officer position (made possible, ironically, by Stuck’s and McKeagney’s departures from the payroll).

Back in January, Sinnott said “the future needs to be distinctly different.” A month later, Sinnott (whose Kids Hope United was previously known as Central Baptist Family Services) was more conciliatory. Still, said the manager of 800 staffers in Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Florida, CWLA must show “continued improvement” in its financial health, build a “rich and talented staff,” be “more responsive to the membership” and be “loud and influential” in advocating on behalf of its membership.

CWLA’s annual conference is held every March in Washington. This year’s event, expected to draw over 1,100 people, will be an important leadership test for Bilchik. Absent substantial gains by Bilchik, it could be his last at the helm. “I love this organization,” Bilchik says. For CWLA’s stakeholders, the “urgent question” is whether they will reciprocate. Contact: Shay Bilchik, Child Welfare League of America (202) 638-2952,; Martin Sinnott, Kids Hope United (312) 949-4000,; George W. Swan III, Wayne County Community College (313) 922- 3311,

Gang Czar

Remember when America had a drug czar? That White House post, now held by John Walters, has morphed into the czardom of mandatory drug testing for students. When it comes to youth, Walters can find little else to talk about.

The fiscal 2006 White House budget asks for $25.4 million, up from $10 million this year, and aspires to test every kid who joins a chess club or a football team. Cut from the same budget is $437 million for the Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities state grant program.

That’s just one of 154 federal programs slated for termination or major cuts, including the Justice Department’s Juvenile Account- ability Block Grants (funded at $54 million this year), Byrne Discretionary Grants ($168 million) and Byrne Justice Assistance Grants ($626 million), all home to hundreds of millions of dollars in congressional earmarks to which many national youth-serving organizations have become addicted. Also zapped in the president’s budget are the Youth Media Campaign at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ($59 million) and Emergency Medical Services for Children ($20 million).

This ganging up on spending for kids raises a question, at least within the Bush administration: What can we do about those gangs, both real and imaginary, now prowling the nation’s cities and countryside? In his State of the Union address in February, Bush declared, “Now we need to focus on giving young people, especially young men in our cities, better options than apathy or gangs or jail.” The president proposed a three-year, $150 million initiative, Helping America’s Youth, to be headed by his new gang czar: first lady and former librarian Laura Bush.

An editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next day observed, “The government’s gang czar should be someone with street credibility and a whole lot of law enforcement experience. For all of her admirable qualities, Mrs. Bush has neither.” Mrs. Bush herself shuns the label, telling Jim Lehrer on PBS’ “Newshour,” “I don’t think I would be called a gang czar,” and went on to describe herself as “an advocate for children my whole life.”

While no one questions Mrs. Bush’s sincerity, many, including David Kuo, the former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, question the math. Kuo, writing on the website “,” run by former Corporation for National and Community Service staffer Steve Waldman, pleads with Laura’s husband to “Please, Keep Faith.”

“Unfortunately,” he writes, “sometimes even the grandly announced ‘new’ programs aren’t what they appear. Nowhere is this clearer than in the recently announced ‘gang prevention initiative’ totaling $50 million a year for three years. The obvious inference is that the money is new spending on an important initiative. Not quite. The money is being taken out of the already meager $100 million request for the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF). If granted, it would actually mean a $5 million reduction in the fund from last year.”

Currently funded at $55 million, the CCF is actually the only new money ever appropriated for Bush’s phantom faith-based initiative. If the president fails to get his requested $100 million (just as Congress rejected the same request last year), that reprogramming of $50 million for the anti-gang initiative will mean jeopardizing funding for some of the current CCF grantees, such as the Indiana Youth Institute ($649,013), New Futures for Youth in Little Rock, Ark. ($324,000), Youth Employment Partnerships in Richmond, Calif. ($50,000), and the Delaware Ecumenical Council on Children and Families ($50,000). In part, Laura Bush’s gang initiative is cast as an effort to rescue minority boys. At a recent visit to the Germantown branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Philadelphia, Mrs. Bush noted, “Boys have a harder time learning to read, graduating from high school and achieving independence.”

A recent study by Duke University compared the situation of boys and girls from childhood through young adulthood between 1985 and 2001. Using 28 variables, they developed an Index of Child Well-Being. Researchers Sarah Meadows, Kenneth Land and Vicki Lamb found that positive social indicators for boys and girls have improved steadily since reaching a low in 1993 and 1994. The sexes varied on specific indicators, such as homicide for boys and suicide attempts for girls. Overall, girls lagged behind, but by a small margin. Nevertheless, evidence-based good news has never checked the policy and program plans of this administration.

Mrs. Bush has been out and about, visiting the George Washington Elementary school in Baltimore, the Think Detroit program at the Wigle Community Center in Detroit, and the Community College National Legislative Summit in Washington. The specifics of the initiative are still in flux, but the CCF is now administered by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration on Children and Families (ACF), run by Commissioner Joan Ohl. The initiative’s final administrative home is likely to be not the White House, but ACF’s Family and Youth Service Bureau, run by Harry Wilson.

Contact: Joan Ohl, Administration on Children and Families (202) 205-8347, The Duke University study, “Assessing Gilligan Vs. Sommers: Gender-Specific Trends in Child and Youth Well-Being in the United States, 1985-2001,” was published in Social Indicators Research, Vol. 70, No. 1, January 2005. Author Sarah Meadows can be reached at