Time to Consider

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In late March, the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association staged call-ins to the legislature to oppose budget cuts for youth services in the child welfare system. Par for the course? Not quite.

While the tactic was standard, the proposed cuts were not. In an interesting twist in what many would call a reasonably progressive state, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri (R) has proposed saving the state $17 million by rolling back the clock on services to transition-aged youth.

As of July 1, the upper age of jurisdiction for all youth involved with the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) would be lowered from 21 to 18, rendering more than 800 young adults immediately ineligible for housing, health and other services. Those over 18 would also become ineligible for placement at the Rhode Island Training School for juveniles and for adjudication in family court. Reports of child abuse and neglect involving youths age 16 or over would no longer go to the department for investigation, but would be handled by local police.

These changes fly in the face of efforts under way in other states to extend eligibility and expand transitional services. They are being proposed in a state that still offers free in-state tuition to youth who are wards of the state. And they are so contrary to current thinking that Voices for America’s Children has encouraged members from other states to weigh in to oppose the cuts.

I don’t know how the governor arrived at this decision. I do know that Rhode Island has a children’s cabinet that was created by state law in 1991. Its purpose: to address all cross-departmental issues related to children and youth services. Its members are the directors of DCYF and seven departments: health, mental health, human services, labor, K-12, higher education and administration.

How does the Rhode Island Children’s Cabinet figure into this story? News reports have left that unanswered.

So why use this column to ask a question I can’t answer?

Because increasingly, organizations such as the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Forum for Youth Investment are seeing these kinds of high-level coordinating bodies as a potentially effective way to get beyond “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when it comes to creating state youth policies. The efficacy of these coordinating bodies is brought into question by the juxtaposition in any state of an established children’s cabinet with policy proposals that, on the surface, epitomize regressive deck-chair shuffling.

Without significant interagency coordination, there is little doubt that many of the youths prematurely pushed out of DCYF will resurface in the government’s adult service systems with added problems and at added expense.

More than 20 states have or are considering creating children’s cabinets or coordinating councils. So whatever the background story is in Rhode Island, as a policy researcher I want to know how children’s cabinets can be empowered and used to help shape tough budgetary choices, play active roles in crafting responses to proposed cuts in their states, present alternatives for consideration, track progress and communicate outcomes.

And I want to understand what the public should expect them to accomplish and how the public should assess their effectiveness.

Clearly, there are limits on the roles children’s cabinets can play. This is why we need parallel coordinating efforts outside of government to encourage nonprofits and advocates to align their efforts. The silos appear just as frequently outside of government as within.

Having staffed one of these councils (the President’s Crime Prevention Council in 1995), I know that when these high-level coordinating bodies are correctly structured, staffed and charged, they are uniquely positioned to not only define big-picture outcomes – such as helping all children enter school ready to learn – but to systematically achieve them.

From Maryland to New Mexico, we find strong cabinets and commissions tackling tough challenges. But there are also examples of mediocre commitment, migrating missions and missed opportunities.

If we believe that these coordinating bodies can be effective, then we must be prepared to question their performance when they are not, and to advocate for changes in either their form or their functioning.

How does your state’s coordinating body rate?

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. An expanded version of this column and links to related readings are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.