The precipitous collapse of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s political career is reverberating in national child welfare policy circles.
The Hammer, as DeLay (R-Texas) is known by friend and foe alike, deviated from his support for the budget-cutting neglect of the nation’s social welfare programs in one important respect: his keen interest in foster care.
Two women – his wife, Christine DeLay, and his trusted senior policy adviser, Cassie Statuto Bevan – spoke authoritatively about child welfare on the former majority leader’s behalf. Mrs. DeLay volunteered as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) in suburban Houston’s Fort Bend County. In the 1990s, as DeLay was tightening his grip on the national government, the DeLays began taking in teenage foster children at their home in Sugar Land, Texas.
Many a politician’s spouse promotes a cause dear (or not so dear) to her heart, often geared toward generating soft feature stories in the local media. Not so Mrs. DeLay, who came to play a substantial role in national foster care policy, a role much amplified by her husband’s clout and Bevan’s expertise.
Mrs. DeLay focused in recent years on building what she regards as a model foster care program – the hybrid nonprofit Oaks at Rio Bend in suburban Richmond, Texas, which houses 10 girls and 16 boys in foster care. The facility is run by Margaret Gow, a CPA – as in accounting, not “child protection agency,” she pointed out in a recent interview. When completed, the facility – on 50 acres donated by the George Foundation – will be neither quite “community-based” nor “institutional,” she said. It will cost about $20.8 million to build eight homes, each with space for six children, including biological children of the foster parents.
Administrative support for the agency is provided by Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSSS), run by President Sam Sipes. LSSS, the state’s largest child welfare provider, will select and supervise staff and license them to provide foster care.
Construction of the Oaks at Rio Bend campus, which will include a gym and chapel, is being done “at cost” by DeLay campaign contributor Bob Perry, a prominent Houston homebuilder, according to a June 2005 article in The Boston Globe.
Perry made his mark on American political history by bankrolling Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, the ad campaign widely credited for sinking the 2004 White House run of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Bevan, says Gow, has “no official capacity” at the Oaks at Rio Bend.
Bevan, who has a doctorate in child psychology from Columbia University, served as the Republican staff director of the now-abolished U.S. House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, and later headed the office of public policy at the National Council for Adoption. In 1995 she joined the pivotal House subcommittee on human resources under the Ways and Means Committee, working on welfare reform, including child welfare. From 2000 to 2001 she served on the Bush-Cheney transition team.
One GOP colleague describes Bevan as the velvet glove holding DeLay’s hammer. Liz Meitner, vice president for governmental affairs and policy at Voices for America’s Children, and formerly with the Child Welfare League of America, says “all House Republicans look to her [Bevan]” for policy guidance on child welfare issues. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes, “You can count on one hand the number of people [on Capitol Hill] that care and know” about child welfare, and he ranks Bevan at the top. A senior Democratic Senate staffer calls Bevan “an honest broker.”
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, has a different take on “Cassie-now-build-the-orphanage Bevan.” In his view, DeLay and Bevan “have worked tirelessly to separate birth families.”
In particular, Wexler heaps scorn on the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 as a stealth “orphanage bill.” But one Democratic Senate staffer notes that adoptions from foster care have gone from 23,000 to 50,000 per year, “and that’s a big deal if you’re the kid.”
“It was 90 percent because of Cassie” that AFSA became law, says Ron Haskins, who worked with Bevan on the House Ways and Means Committee and is now at the Brookings Institution. In addition to ASFA, Bevan was a principal staffer for the Inter-Ethnic Placement Act of 1996, the Adoption Tax Credit of 1996, the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, the DC Family Court Act of 2001 and the House-passed welfare reform reauthorization, the Personal Responsibility, Work and Family Promotion Act of 2002.
Says one Democratic staff counterpart, “Cassie understands that we have to have bipartisanship” to get anything done on child welfare issues. In Bevan, congressional Democrats found they had “a good professional negotiator” who, thanks to DeLay’s complete confidence in her, could forge agreements and “stick to a deal.” Horn agrees, saying DeLay “relied on and trusted her” on foster care matters.
Kids & Contributions
Like every other DeLay venture, the congressman’s fundraising prowess for foster kids has been dogged by controversy. A plan to use a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Celebrations for Children, to raise money at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York caved under withering criticism. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette called its “marriage of politics and charity … an unholy alliance.” It was run by Delay’s daughter, Danielle DeLay. Bevan served as one of three board members.
But DeLay’s main vehicle for tapping corporations, lobbyists and other special pleaders has been the DeLay Foundation for Kids.
In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2004, the foundation had $2,364,851 in gross receipts and a fund balance of $4 million, according to its federal tax returns. It spent $2,422,451, all but $89,211 of it going to the Oaks at Rio Bend nonprofit.
The foundation raised most of its money through golf tournaments attended by lobbyists and corporate executives. “This so-called ‘charity’ is set up to divide its contributions between helping poor children and electing the very politicians whose policies help keep these children impoverished,” Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, wrote in a 2004 issue of Responsive Philanthropy, the group’s quarterly newsletter.
Among those anteing up for the DeLay Foundation for Kids are the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America ($100,000) – the nation’s largest contractor of private prisons – the Limited Brands (owner of Victoria’s Secret), the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation ($250,000), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($100,000), the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, Exxon Mobil and communications giant SBC.
One nonprofit eager to scratch the DeLay Foundation’s back was the Capital Athletic Foundation, set up and controlled by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. That phony 501(c)(3) was supposed to help kids but never got around to it, what with all the opportunities for Abramoff to fleece all comers. To that end, Abramoff had such clients as the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas and the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana contribute to the DeLay Foundation for Kids. Virtually all of the funds raised so far – about $8 million, says Gow – have gone to build what eventually will be a 192-bed “village” at Rio Bend.
DeLay’s many child welfare-related activities attracted attention from more than the House Ethics Committee and the news media. In 2000, DeLay received the Humanitarian Award from the Sterling, Va.-based Orphan Foundation of America, now run by Eileen McCaffrey. In 2002, Child Advocates of Fort Bend County, then run by Linda Schultz, named DeLay and his wife “Child Advocates of the Year.”
DeLay is scheduled to leave the House on June 9. Wexler fears that once out of Congress, Delay will have “more time to support bad policies in child welfare.”
Bevan now works on DeLay’s staff just two days a week. Now Bevan has a new job as senior policy staff member for the House International Relations Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). She will work on international adoptions and human rights issues.
But while DeLay might be a spent political force, Bevan will certainly continue as one of the GOP’s top go-to people on child welfare issues.