Foundation Child Neglect in New Orleans?

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New Orleans, La. — While billions of dollars have been poured into rebuilding this city and much of the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, youth service leaders say foundations are largely ignoring their pleas to help rebuild the area’s youth services. '

“Foundations are saying they’re not present [for youth programs] because kids aren’t here yet,” says New Orleans Juvenile Court Chief Judge David Bell. “Which is completely asinine.”

While philanthropies made substantial commitments to New Orleans and the Gulf region after the hurricanes, leaders in New Orleans’ juvenile justice system and after-school field say they’ve been largely left out – and that could hinder what many see as an unprecedented chance to rebuild notoriously inadequate youth-service systems. (See “Hope Springs from Katrina’s Rubble,” September.)

Other than valuable consulting work done by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Bell says, he hasn’t seen another juvenile justice funder step up to the plate. “A far as we’re concerned, other foundations cease to exist. That’s how useless they have been,” he says.

Even more galling, he says, is that funders have requested large amounts of data and records from the court to study practices and procedures. “They want to gather your data so they can write about what you did wrong … and assign blame, while not coming in to assist,” he says. “These are entities that are committed to reforming juvenile justice systems, that are completely and totally absent.”

Gina Warner, director of the Greater New Orleans Afterschool Partnership, expressed similar sentiments. “Foundations have put out about 800 bodies of research on status of things here; all they spent money on was research,” Warner says. “And now a lot of people at the national level want to tell us how to do things. We know how. We have good programs that just need to be brought to scale.”

To be sure, foundations have sent a staggering amount of money to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region in the past year. Grant makers have contributed approximately $577 million to Gulf Coast rebuilding, according to a survey of 906 foundations by The Foundation Center. Much of that money was given quickly; 80 percent of the foundations surveyed said they had completed Gulf Coast funding by January 2006 and had no plans to make further grants.

Some foundations have earmarked part of their funding for youth programs. For example, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave $2.9 million to three of its Mississippi grantees for Katrina-related purposes: the Southern regional office of the Children’s Defense Fund, the Mississippi State University Early Childhood Development Institute and the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. The Freddie Mac Foundation gave $300,000 to the National Foster Parent Association and $700,000 to the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) and provided $100,000 to the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children to help locate missing children from the region and reunite them with their families.

Reasons to be Wary

Not everyone feels that the foundations’ hesitation is unwarranted. “I wouldn’t want to put money here if I was a foundation, either,” says Melissa Sawyer, executive director of Youth Empowerment Project, which helps New Orleans youth re-enter the community after stints in juvenile corrections. “There aren’t many good programs to give it to.”

Bart Lubow, a senior program associate with Casey who is working with Bell and other New Orleans juvenile justice stakeholders, sees it both ways.

Foundations aren’t sitting on their hands, he says. “All [the big] foundations are doing a lot to contribute to the Gulf Coast,” Lubow says.

But when it comes to youth work in New Orleans, he says, many grant makers seem to be taking “an odd, if not immoral, posture that it’s such a mess that it would be hard to make a difference. Foundations want to work where there is a chance to demonstrate success.”

The Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations (LANO) hopes to convince funders that it’s worth investing in Greater New Orleans nonprofits. It is working with members on a plan to build and improve the city’s social safety net.

“I think there are still a lot of foundations waiting to see how the recovery is proceeding, and which organizations can have the greatest achievements,” says Melissa Flournoy, CEO of the association.

Members will present their plans at LANO’s Translating Research into Action conference, planned for November. Flournoy says LANO will organize site visits for foundation representatives at “model programs” during the week before the conference.

“There has been a lot of research to determine needs” of service agencies in New Orleans, Flournoy says. “We’re hoping to turn it into program operating support.”