CWLA to Obama: Where’s the Youth Conference?

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The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) felt a bit put out by the Community College Summit held at the White House early this month.

Nothing against education, CWLA President Christine James-Brown said in a recent letter to President Obama. But where’s the White House Conference on Children and Youth – which the CWLA has been requesting for years?

While Obama co-sponsored a bill for such a conference as a U.S. senator, the prospects in Congress and the White House are lukewarm so far. 

The first such conference was held in 1909 and six more followed, helping to focus federal policies on disadvantaged children. The last one was in 1970. For the past several years the league has waged a campaign involving everything from posters and postcards to letters to legislation  to get President George W. Bush, and now President Obama, to hold a conference.

“We are still awaiting a response,” James-Brown says in her Oct. 12 letter to the president, “and were surprised to learn that the administration backed a White House Community College Summit.” The CWLA says she learned of the Oct. 5 summit through this story.   

“Will you now stand up for our children and families by reconvening the White House Conference on Children and Youth, and therefore assisting us with ensuring that children and families remain a national priority?” she wrote.

While such Washington gatherings often produce little more than talk, the children’s conferences have had some impact on federal policy. The first one led to the creation of the federal Children’s Bureau and the Bureau for Exchange of Information Among Child-Helping Agencies – which later changed its name to the CWLA. The conferences have been held under several versions of the same name – such as the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children and the Conference on Standards of Child Welfare – and have examined such issues as child health, poverty, racial discrimination, foster care and child labor.

Legislation to back a new conference sits in committees in both the House and Senate. At the White House, both the Bush and Obama administrations “have said to us that they will look at it,” said Tim Briceland-Betts, the CWLA’s director of government affairs. A spokesman for the White House was not able to confirm the receipt of the James-Brown’s recent letter or any administration response.

The community college summit happened largely because Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, is a community college teacher and, as The Washington Post says, “made her job a key part of her administration platform.” She hosted the summit.

The CWLA  hopes “the fact that he [Obama] was a co-sponsor of the legislation gives us a leg up,” Briceland-Betts said. But it has not so far, leaving backers of the children’s conference to compete with the myriad other issues vying for the administration’s attention: mainly the economy, health care, two wars and the November elections.

 Like many people advocating in Washington for other causes, Briceland-Betts hopes the odds of getting some attention will improve when the elections are over and policymakers can focus more fully on policy. “We’ll keep doing our postcards,” he said.