Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2007

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National News Roundup

Colorado

To ensure the safety of children adopted internationally, Colorado has become the first state to reach an agreement with the federal government to have the feds oversee the licensing of international adoption agencies operating in the state, according to the Denver Post.

The agreement means more scrutiny and oversight of Colorado adoption agencies, as well as detailed evaluations of an agency's methods and practices, the Post reports. "Parents will definitely see some changes," says Dana Andrews, Licensing Administrator for the state Division of Child Care. "They will feel a heightened ability to complain, since the complaints will be tracked through the [U.S.] State Department."

"Colorado has fairly stringent regulations on international adoptions," Andrews adds. "We felt many of our agencies would already comply since we already monitored them." International adoption agencies seeking Colorado accreditation must pay the state up to $6,000 in fees.

U.S. families adopt at least 20,000 foreign children annually, according to the State Department. The largest number comes from mainland China--nearly 8,000 from October 2004 to September 2005.

Delaware

The state paid $1.1 million during the 2005-2006 school year to transport 1,600 homeless children to the schools they attended before they became homeless--more than double what the state had budgeted. The service became federally mandated in 2002, and the cost to fund it has crept upward each year, according to Delaware's News Journal.

"We want to do this. It's just expensive," says Joanne Miro, Education Associate for school improvement in the state's Department of Education. "It's for the benefit of the child if they stay in the same school as long as possible."

When the 1987 McKinney-Vento Act was reauthorized in 2002 as part of the President's No Child Left Behind Act, the update expanded the definition of who qualifies as homeless. In addition to children living on the street and in shelters, children living with friends or relatives and those living in motels and campsites now also qualify. Parents must also want their children to attend their original school.

The newspaper cites an example in the Woodbridge School District last year, where the average cost for a one-way private van trip--the district was unable to use its regular buses--was $40, meaning the state paid $80 a day to take one child to and from school.

Miro told the News Journal the school districts sometimes have few options and are forced to pay contractors more than they would like.

Illinois

The Illinois legislature is setting aside $45 million to pay for 10,000 new preschool slots this year under a new law, Preschool for All, that lets the state spend its money on preschool for any child, regardless of income reports.

Before the law, only low-income students or children academically "at risk" were eligible, but Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) has set out to change that by making preschool free for anyone in the state who wants to participate. Currently, federal and state funds pay for preschool for 130,000 at-risk Illinois children. Blagojevich wants to reach 190,000 3- and 4-year-olds by 2010, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The 10,000 added preschool slots in 2006 will be prioritized for students with language barriers and developmental disabilities, and for middle-income families earning less than four times the poverty rate--$80,000 for a family of four, the newspaper reports.

Preschool for All passed unanimously in the state's House, and with 10 dissenting votes in the state Senate.

"We've put the state on record saying access to universal preschool is a commitment of the state," says the bill's sponsor, state Representative Barbara Flynn Currie (D). "Yes, we have further to go, but we've already come a pretty long way."

Massachusetts

The federal government has agreed to continue providing Massachusetts $385 million in annual Medicaid money through a waiver for the next two years, the Boston Globe reports--an important step in the state's plans to roll out a new health care plan that seeks to insure nearly all Massachusetts residents over the next several years.

The new health care plan will offer a combination of subsidized and low-cost insurance plans, the expansion of Medicaid coverage, and incentives for small businesses to cover workers. The state's new law, which is making the health care plan possible, gradually shifts a portion of Medicaid money from payments to hospitals that serve the poor to using that money to insure poor residents.

"Massachusetts is now at the forefront of a revolution in the way we think about health care," says Governor Mitt Romney (R). "The reforms we crafted bring coverage to all citizens, without a government takeover of health care, and without the need to raise taxes."

New Jersey

Governor Jon Corzine (D) signed a new law last July creating a cabinet-level Department of Child and Family Services. Corzine says he hopes newly appointed Director Kevin Ryan will make sweeping changes now that child welfare has been removed from the Department of Human Services.

Child welfare advocates have consistently complained about the large caseloads, poor training, outdated computer systems, and complex bureaucracy in New Jersey, and the effect on the functioning of the state's child welfare system. In 1999, Children's Rights Inc. sued the state, insisting the system needed improvements. The state eventually reached a settlement in the case.

Now, Corzine says improving the way the state protects children "may be the most important thing" he does in office.

"No one should expect miracles from moving boxes around on an organizational chart," Richard Wexler, head of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told the New York Times. "The key is getting enough resources and giving Kevin Ryan the time to produce results."

Ryan, who worked as the state's child advocate for the past two years, will lead 6,600 workers in the new department, leaving Human Services to retain 16,000 employees and a $4.6 billion budget to cover Medicaid and welfare, offer drug and alcohol treatment, and provide services to the elderly and mentally ill. Ryan says a 12-month turnaround plan recently published by the state will be his blueprint for change.

Wisconsin

While serving a four-year prison sentence for drunk driving, Wisconsin resident Jodie Williams lost parental rights of her 6-year-old son. Since her recent release, she has fought to get them back, including enrolling in drug and alcohol treatment, domestic violence counseling, and parenting classes. But her efforts to find housing proved more difficult and resulted in an appellate court ruling that her challenge on parental rights had "no merit."

Williams appealed and won last July when Wisconsin's Supreme Court reinstated her rights as a parent, ruling that conditions of return must be tailored to each individual case and that the nature of the parent's conviction and length of sentence can and should be among the considerations for parental unfitness, but not the only factor, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

"We conclude that the circuit court improperly deemed Jodie unfit solely by virtue of her status as an incarcerated person without regard for her actual parenting activities or the condition of her child," the court ruled.

According to legal experts, the ruling could fundamentally change how the state's courts handle hundreds of cases involving children of incarcerated parents.

"It is a significant decision," says Henry Plum, an attorney who trains district attorneys throughout Wisconsin on child welfare laws. "What conditions can the court put on an incarcerated parent? That is going to be the question. Some of the conditions are dependent upon which services are available in prison, like parenting classes and individual psychotherapy. Judges and district attorneys have no control over what the prison system offers."

Cindy Lepkowski, an attorney who works in the Milwaukee County Children's Court, told the Sentinel the Williams decision will result in fewer petitions to terminate parental rights, possibly leaving children without permanent homes for longer periods of time.

"Counties are going to find this difficult with some parents, and the result is going to be that the state is going to be raising more children," she says. "We are back to where we were years ago."

Williams's son went to live with her parents when she went to prison, but they soon realized they couldn't keep him and handed him over to Kenosha County social services. The boy was placed with a foster family who wanted to adopt him, the Sentinel reports.

Last summer, Williams was living with her parents in Kenosha County and supporting herself on less than $700 a month from disability payments. "The last time I saw my son was in November 2004," she said in the Sentinel. "It has been a long time, and I doubt if he will remember me. I love my son, and we belong together. I want him back. There is no question about that."


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