Sure They Talk, But Can They Walk?

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Front 1As a symbol of the wrong way to do things, the razor wire-enclosed Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, Md., has long been an inviting target for reformers. Just ask Vinny Schiraldi, who for two decades fired many of the shots, such as “I wouldn’t kennel my dog there.”

Then the powers that be turned the tables on the president of the Justice Policy Institute: They put him in charge of Oak Hill.

As director of Washington’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), Schiraldi’s job includes replacing the notorious facility that he said should be shut down.

Schiraldi belongs to a small but noteworthy club: youth advocates who went from agitating against lousy government services for youth to managing government services for youth. As senior public officials, they’ve been given the rare chance to back up their talk with action – and the opportunity to see how hard it can be to get things done.

In San Francisco, Margaret Brodkin ran Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth for 26 years before becoming executive director of the city’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families in 2004 – a department created in part because of cajoling from Coleman.

That same year, Marketa Gautreau, CEO of Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana for nearly eight years, was appointed assistant secretary of the state’s Department of Social Services – responsible for the Office of Community Services, which operates the child welfare system.

In New Jersey, Kevin Ryan went from advocating for homeless youth while he worked for Covenant House to serving as the state government’s first child advocate, pushing for improvement in child welfare, juvenile justice and developmental disabilities systems. This year he was named commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families.

They’ve all struggled to carry out the reforms they preach while dealing with unexpected public disasters, such as a hurricane or the death of youth in care; angry workers and protective unions that go so far as to take a no-confidence vote; the sloth-like movement of government hiring and bureaucratic change; and voicing complaints only behind closed doors.

Why take on such headaches? Because “at a certain point,” Schiraldi says, “you have to put your money where your mouth is.”

Fantasies and Attacks

They say they love their government jobs.

As an advocate, Gautreau publicly railed against the quality of Louisiana’s child welfare services. When she got the chance to oversee child welfare and other social services, she says, “How could I say ‘no’ to the opportunity of a lifetime?”

Ryan feels the same. “I got to a place where I could be part of the solution,” he says. “I like to be in the fray – making decisions and driving changes. This job gave me a chance to walk the talk.”

In San Francisco, Brodkin appears to be having an especially good time, because Coleman Advocates successfully fought for the creation of the department she now heads. It funds and supports community-based programs in early childhood, health, youth employment and child care.

“It’s a total kick for me to manage something that part of my work at Coleman created,” says Brodkin, whose department is budgeted at $55 million. “I feel like I have a fantasy job.”

Then she adds: “I’m in a different situation from Vinny Schiraldi in D.C.”

As with many advocates who take the helm of government systems, Schiraldi started with high hopes from reformers but drew suspicion from those entrenched in the system.

The Washington juvenile corrections system has long been dogged by a reputation for dysfunction and failure. “Not only are we building a new facility,” Schiraldi said soon after his appointment by Mayor Anthony Williams in January 2005, “but we plan on operating these facilities in a radically new fashion [that] will allow for the kind of individualized programming that is the key to success.”

Juvenile justice reformers hoped to make Washington a test case. “If we can pull this off in the nation’s capital,” Schiraldi says, “we’ve effected change under the nose of every policymaker in the country.”

“That’s absolutely the case,” agrees Bart Lubow, a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Anyone who would not agree that the juvenile justice system in D.C. was broken for the past 20 years hasn’t been paying attention.”

Oak Hill has been under court monitoring since 1985 as the result of a civil rights lawsuit brought by public defenders.
However, not everyone welcomes revolutions. In a city where crime is often portrayed as out of control, Schiraldi’s seemingly kinder, gentler methods for handling juvenile offenders drew quick resistance.

Soon he got hit with “no-confidence” votes from two unions. The first represented corrections officers, many of whom were skeptical about Schiraldi’s desire to make the atmosphere at Oak Hill more homelike and to reduce the number of youths held under lock and key.

“I don’t think Vinny has the same concept of discipline as correctional officers have,” Glenn Adams, president of the officers’ local at Oak Hill, told the news media. “His idea of consequences is not our idea of consequences.”

The second vote came from the union local representing case workers in Schiraldi’s department. “He’s great at propaganda and philosophical ideas about what to do with kids,” says Johnnie Walker, president of the local. “But all of it is pie in the sky.”

In Louisiana, Gautreau warns that veteran staffers might be wary of reformers riding in to clean the system. She says those working under her had a right to wonder, “What’s this outsider going to do? She didn’t grow up in the system or know what we do. How’s she going to deal with us?”

Olivia Golden was surprised by the anger she faced from employees after becoming director of Child and Family Services in Washington in 2001, where she eventually helped to lead the agency out of federal court receivership. Golden had been director of programs and policy at the Children’s Defense Fund before taking senior positions at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration.

“People who come in from outside can be unprepared for the intense effects of 10 to 15 years of anger and betrayal” at a government agency that’s been under the gun, she says. “I was not surprised that foster care workers and families might be angry. But to have that anger directed at me – that was new.”

And as a reformer tries to reform, the unions watch how the changes affect their members’ jobs. For example, Brodkin believes San Francisco’s recreation centers can be neighborhood hubs for services that could include more use of public-private partnerships. But she says unions want to be sure that government jobs don’t get shifted to the private sector. “It’s all about jobs,” she says.

The Inevitable Disaster

Taking over a government agency means having to answer – publicly – to elected officials when something goes wrong. That means you get subjected to the kind of public lashing that you used to administer, only this time from grandstanding politicians who control your budget and maybe your job.

Months after Schiraldi began at the new DYRS, the body of a 17-year-old was tossed from a car on a local commuter route. The local media reported the boy had a history of weapons arrests, was the prime suspect in two homicides, and was supposed to be under DYRS supervision or care (although the specifics have never been divulged).

Schiraldi was grilled about the case by a congressional committee, because Congress has authority over the city of Washington. But he refused to divulge details of the boy’s case, citing confidentiality laws covering youth offenders.

Soon thereafter, an 18-year-old died of head injuries after a brawl at Oak Hill. More questions arose.

A little more than a year into his job, Schiraldi sat before Washington’s City Council and admitted that his department had “suffered some unfortunate and at times tragic setbacks and been faced with greater challenges and obstacles than I originally anticipated … [but] I’m every bit as committed to implementing the model of reform.”

Down in Louisiana, Gautreau knows well the havoc that unexpected disasters can wreak on reform plans. Last year, Hurricane Katrina scattered her employees, the youth in care and the providers. Of her staff of 1,800, she says, 900 ended up in shelters and 600 were evacuated from the city, “leaving 300 people to run the whole state agency.”

The Department of Social Services says it now has more foster children (about 5,050) than last year, but it has lost 65 to 70 percent of its residential bed space in the areas affected by the storm.

“I don’t feel the opportunity for change … because my numbers are going up, and I don’t have enough foster care placements to take care of the increase,” Gautreau said when discussing Katrina’s effects a few months ago.

Nevertheless, she intends to shift the agency more toward family preservation. An over-reliance on congregate care was one of her main concerns when she ran Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana.

In April, Gautreau faced a congressional hearing about the state’s hurricane response. She pushed for more federal help for child welfare agencies, such as providing wireless communication systems for use in emergencies.

As an advocate, she says, “I’m not afraid to lobby the legislature or talk to the press. That’s unusual in state government.”
But even when the government agrees with the talk, getting action provides another lesson for advocates.

Still an Advocate?

Nothing about being an advocate quite prepares you for the slowness of government, Gautreau says. “You’ve got to work with the bureaucracy as it’s created, but it can be frustrating,” she says. “It can feel like bureaucracy moves at the speed of molasses.”

The size and complexity of some government departments can create a culture shock for advocates, notes Golden, who now thinks about such things as a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. “Many advocates may have worked in very small organizations that do not have so many moving parts, like complex budgets and personnel matters,” she says.

Brodkin laments that just getting a lease renewed takes an inordinate amount of time. When you want to shift around tasks and responsibilities, job descriptions tie your hands.

In Washington, the timetable drags out for shutting down the 220-bed Oak Hill, replacing it with a 60-bed facility, and for reducing the number of kids behind bars.

When Schiraldi appeared before the City Council in February, one Council member asked, “How can it take 10 months to design something?”

“Everything is slower than it ought to be,” Schiraldi says.

But he is surrounded by allies who keep the spirit of change going. He tapped David Brown, executive director of the Washington-based National Youth Employment Coalition, as his deputy director. Brown and Schiraldi collaborated on a 2002 report, “Workforce and Youth Development for Young Offenders.”

Joining DYRS “was a chance to do what we’d been telling others to for a long time,” Brown says. “It was time to test the assumptions.”

Some of Schiraldi’s allies are heavy hitters in the movement backing alternatives to incarceration, such as the Casey Foundation. Casey made Washington part of its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which has funded reforms at about 80 sites. That help includes a $100,000 grant to Washington for technical assistance and consultants, says the foundation’s Lubow.

But when all of these advocates start running the railroad, do they start pulling their punches about what’s wrong with the system? Not surprisingly, none of them think they do.

“I have not changed what I am,” Brodkin insists. “I’m still very much an advocate in government. I still feel free to say what I think.

“People are outspoken in various city departments, and they speak colleague to colleague. I speak directly to the mayor, and I say the same things I would as an advocate.”

How is Schiraldi doing? For starters, he seems more forthright about the progress of his agency than government department heads typically are.

“I’ve moved a lot of things forward on the chess board a little, but there’s nothing yet that I’ve moved a lot,” he says.

“Will I adjust my goals to reflect the ways of the D.C. government or the culture of the department? No. So far, I’m sticking with my goals.”