‘Vacancy’ Signs Frustrate Youth Advocates

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The slow pace of filling jobs in the Obama administration is stalling progress on youth issues.

Advocates for disadvantaged youth grew frustrated as many key administration posts remained vacant all summer or were held by appointees who haven’t been confirmed by the Senate.

The process of filling jobs always takes a long time under new administrations, but the process appears to be particularly slow under the Obama administration. One reason: The confirmation process for executive nominations was stalled before the summer recess, when the White House and Congress focused on the confirmation of new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

At the Departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services (HHS), which handle the majority of federal youth programs not related to education, the slow confirmation process appears to be stalling movement on at least two major pieces of legislation: the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 and reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA).

The CEO’s office at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) remains without a permanent occupant as well. Obama nominated Maria Eitel for the position, but she withdrew from consideration in May, citing health concerns. The White House has not submitted another candidate.

On the other hand, the Department of Education quickly filled its ranks over the summer, and the Senate confirmed Obama’s choice of youth work veteran Jane Oates to oversee the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.

Here is how the hold-ups are affecting two issues:

Fostering Connections Act

Signed by President George W. Bush last October, the law lets states use matched federal money to provide more permanency for youth who might otherwise languish in state care for years. For the first time, states can use federal money to create guardianship assistance programs (GAPs) for services to youth up to age 21, an increase from 18.

The law was hailed by advocates and state administrators as landmark legislation. But states have approached the new opportunities warily, for two main reasons: At a time of strained state budgets, the law requires state spending; and the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) – the HHS agency that oversees child welfare programs – has not issued definitive rules for how the Fostering Connections programs will work. For example:

• Maryland intends to expand foster care services to youth over 18 under Fostering Connections, Brenda Donald, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said at a congressional hearing held in late September by the law’s author, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). But Donald testified that her office still needs answers on “what can be considered a supervised independent living setting” and “what types of medical conditions might opt youth out of educational or work provisions” of the act.

• States that already operate GAPs using other financial sources wonder if they will be able to move their existing caseloads into the federal program. An interim set of rules for Fostering Connections, issued during the Bush administration, suggested that might not be possible.

“States are eager to proceed with implementation on the landmark Fostering Connections law, but need guidance from HHS on some critical questions,” said Terence Kane, public policy analyst at Generations United. “Executive leadership from the federal government will help.”

The conventional wisdom was that official guidance was unlikely to come down from ACF until weeks after the nominee to lead the agency, Carmen Nazario, was confirmed. “We are eager” to see a nominee confirmed, McDermott said earnestly at a mid-September hearing.

The congressman and other Fostering Connections proponents got their wish later in the month. Nazario was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on Sept. 22 after spending four months as a nominee. (For more on Nazario, see Newsmakers in this issue.)

For a discussion of how some states are trying to implement the law, see “Extending Foster Care to Age 21” at http://www.youthtoday.org.

Juvenile Justice Reauthorization

At the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), day-to-day operations appear to be running smoothly under Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski. Under former Administrator J. Robert Flores, the agency developed a reputation for sluggish dissemination of research and reports, and questionable grant review practices. Since Slowikowski took over in January, the office has sped up the release of research and reports, and distributed the bulk of its Recovery Act money well ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline.

But the office has been mute on the reauthorization of JJDPA; the bill sits in the hopper at the Senate Judiciary Committee.

At a conference held by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in August, Deputy Administrator Marilyn Roberts told an audience of 500 that the administration had “no official position” on the reauthorization bill.

That vexes the cadre of national organizations that have banded together as Act 4 Juvenile Justice (ACT4JJ) to champion the bill. Among other things, the bill would set specific dollar-amount authorizations for various OJJDP programs and would phase out the ability of judges to use valid court orders to detain status offenders.

Nobody blamed Roberts in particular for stopping short of support for the reauthorization. Her boss is Slowikowski, who is in an interim position as the administration mulls over choices to lead OJJDP. And his boss is Laurie Robinson, who was the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Justice Programs, then became Obama’s pick to permanently fill the job. Robinson has yet to be confirmed yet, either.

The end result is that, officially, OJJDP holds the same position as when Flores testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the summer of 2008, saying he neither supported nor opposed reauthorization.

“It just shows how much we need someone in place at OJJDP,” said Liz Ryan, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.