Youth Advocates Vie for Attention in Washington

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Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle introduced bipartisan legislation last month that would, for the first time, attempt to coordinate the federal government’s varied and often confusing array of programs for youth.

The Federal Youth Coordination Act (H.R. 856 and S. 409), introduced by Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), would create a federal youth development council to make federal agencies improve their communication and information-sharing. (Organizations sign memo to White House urging youth priorities.)

Improved collaboration would lead to “the most effective possible” spending without “reinventing the wheel or stepping on toes,” Coleman said at a news conference about the bill.

The failure of federal agencies to work together better “frustrates our members on a day-to-day basis,” said Mishaela Duran, public policy director for the National Network for Youth. Her organization represents primarily organizations assisting runaway and homeless youth.

For example, Duran said that while many of the network’s agencies get grants from the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, they are keenly interested in efforts by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to help locked-up juvenile offenders make the transition back into society, “because lots of kids exiting corrections become homeless.”

In fact, when the DOJ recently conducted a needs assessment of grantees in its offender re-entry program, Duran said, most of the grantees “asked for technical assistance with housing opportunities.” At the same time, many of the network’s members “are experts in housing. Most have been doing it for 30 years. So FYSB should be talking to DOJ, to hook the grantees up with agencies and find out who has high-quality services.”

But, she said, “FYSB didn’t even realize that DOJ grantees need” expertise and training about housing.

The Council’s Role

The bill’s authors say the measure would prevent such breakdowns in communication by increasing the amount of information shared by agencies, a process often impeded by rules protecting the privacy of youth in the programs.

“There are statutory barriers. … You have to approach it carefully,” Coleman said. “But it’s worth seeing what we can ease up, without making sensitive information public.”

The act was inspired by findings from the 2004 study by the White House Task Force on Disadvantaged Youth, which found rampant overlap among federal programs serving youth, and little communication among them. (See “Federal Youth Programs and Policy Taken to Task,” February 2004.)

With President Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget proposal calling for significant cuts in domestic spending, supporters of the Youth Coordination Act hope the small price tag will make the act politically palatable. It calls for $1.5 million to staff and operate the council.

The act is supported by the Campaign for Youth, a public policy initiative representing more than 1,000 youth-serving organizations, and the National Collaboration for Youth, a 50-member coalition of youth-focused organizations.

“This is not a magic bullet,” said Shay Bilchik, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, which belongs to both groups. “But it is an excellent next step. We are reaching youth and getting good outcomes, but there are so many more to reach.” Some in the youth field are guarded in assessing the impact of a federal youth council.

“The council can cut through some huge problems we have,” said Morna Murray, co-director for education and youth development at the Children’s Defense Fund. “I worry about the council focusing on the symptoms rather than the root causes of problems for at-risk youth.” One root cause, she said, “is there not being enough resources” – but at a time of record budget deficits and a proposal for big domestic spending cuts, raising the idea of new social services spending is virtually taboo.

Others worry that the council could be used to justify eliminating youth programs by finding duplicative efforts in various agencies. “I have heard that from some advocates,” Duran acknowledged. But she doubts any ulterior motives, noting that “the White House task force didn’t focus on eliminating programs.”

The council would be made up of leaders from 12 federal agencies: the secretaries of agriculture, education, health and human services, commerce, defense, housing and urban development, homeland security and the interior; the attorney general; the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; and the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Members would also include the heads of the U.S.A Freedom Corps and the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the assistant to the president on domestic policy. There would be slots for representatives of youth-serving organizations. The staff would be overseen by a director, to be named by a chairman appointed by the president. The council would be up for reauthorization in 2009.

Contact: Sen. Norm Coleman (202) 224-5641; Rep. Tom Osborne (202) 225-6435,