Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2007

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National News Roundup

Arkansas

In a poll of 500 likely Arkansas voters last summer, 62% said they strongly or somewhat opposed allowing homosexuals to be foster parents, according to The Morning News in Northwest Arkansas.

Of those surveyed in the telephone poll, 11% somewhat favored allowing gay men and women to be foster parents, and 15% strongly favored it. The other 10% were undecided, didn't know, or did not answer.

"I would love to put every child with Ozzie and Harriet," State Representative Sam Ledbetter, a Democrat representing Little Rock, told The Morning News. "I wish we could do that. The reality...is that is not going to happen. To disqualify an otherwise perfectly, exceptionally qualified foster parent because of their sexual orientation is, in my opinion, punishing the child."

Last June, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a 1999 state Child Welfare Agency Review Board regulation banning gay foster parenting. The court determined the board went beyond its authority in using morality as criteria in the regulation.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee (R) had called for a legislative ban on gay foster parents in the 2007 General Assembly. Arkansas's new Governor, Mike Beebe (D), sparred with Republican opponent Asa Hutchinson over the question of gay foster parenting during last year's gubernatorial campaign, each charging the other with being inconsistent on the issue.

California

Last September, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed a package of bills intended to improve the lives of tens of thousands of young people in foster care, including improving coordination of services among agencies and courts, and making it easier for kids in foster care to contact siblings.

"It is absolutely important that we're doing a better job for foster care youth and foster care kids in the future, because this state really hasn't done a great job," Schwarzenegger said in the San Jose Mercury News.

Much of the credit for the new laws has gone to Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) who convened hearings that drew hundreds of children's advocates and enlisted the help of celebrities.

The newly enacted laws include
  • AB 1979, which eliminates fees for criminal background checks of adults who want to volunteer as mentors to kids in foster care;

  • AB 2195, which improves the process for placing youth with relatives;

  • AB 2216, which creates the California Child Welfare Council within the Health and Human Services Agency, increasing collaboration and coordination of child welfare services;

  • AB 2480, which gives children and youth access to attorneys during dependency proceedings at the appellate level

  • AB 2488, which provides intermediaries for children in foster care to contact siblings;

  • AB 2985, which protects youth in foster care from being victims of identity theft;

  • SB 1641, which seeks to place youth in home environments "that resemble as closely as possible non-foster-care families;" and

  • SB 1667, which allows foster parents better access to providing their input and recommendations in court.

Connecticut

Connecticut's Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a woman whom prosecutors said maintained such a filthy home that it endangered the safety and mental health of her 12-year-old son, who committed suicide in 2002, according to the New York Times.

Judith Scruggs was the first Connecticut parent to be charged criminally in a child's suicide, experts said. But the Supreme Court ruled prosecutors could not point to "objective standards for determining the point at which housekeeping becomes so poor that an ordinary person should know that it poses an unacceptable risk to the mental health of a child."

Scruggs was convicted on one felony count of putting her son Daniel at risk by creating an unhealthy home environment and was sentenced to probation and 100 hours of community services in 2004.

During her trial, police investigators testified about piles of debris and a garbage odor throughout the single mother's home. But Scruggs's lawyers claimed Daniel was far more traumatized by bullying he experienced at school, according to the Times.

"She absolutely should not have been charged, because it wasn't the cause of his suicide," said Lisa Toomey, a local business owner who started an anti-bullying advocacy group after reading about Daniel's suicide, told the Times. Her group helped pass legislation in Connecticut to hold schools accountable for bullying and make it easier for students to report abuse.

Louisiana

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have had an unexpected positive effect on Louisiana's child welfare statistics--the number of valid child abuse and neglect allegations have gone down statewide, according to The Advocate in Baton Rouge.

At the end of the state's 2006 fiscal year (July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006), the state's Department of Social Services (DSS) released statistics that showed 20 children died in Louisiana from abuse and neglect. DSS is investigating another 27 child deaths believed due to abuse. In FY 2005, 33 children died from child abuse or neglect.

The number of child abuse and neglect allegations found to be valid dropped 9% during FY 2006--from 13,999 allegations in 2005 to 12,746 in 2006. Plaquemines Parish, hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, experienced the greatest decrease in allegations, from 45 in 2005 to 11 in 2006, a drop of 75.6%.

But Marketa Gautreau, Assistant Secretary for the state Office of Community Services, pointed out that substance abuse and domestic violence are increasing in Louisiana homes, placing children at greater risk of abuse and neglect.

Massachusetts

Governor Mitt Romney (R) has signed a new economic development bill into law allowing for-profit companies to compete for the first time in Massachusetts with government and nonprofit agencies in handling child placement with adoptive or foster care families.

The measure, which passed without a public hearing, angered child welfare advocates and nonprofit agencies who claimed for-profit companies often introduce aggressive marketing and high adoption placement fees. The for-profit human services company Massachusetts Mentor pushed for the change with the help of lobbyists, the Boston Globe reported. Under the revised law, the company can compete directly for state foster care contracts.

In a recent high profile case, the state cited Massachusetts Mentor for lax supervision of a foster care mother who was indicted on second-degree murder in the death of a 4-year-old child in foster care. Massachusetts Mentor was the subcontractor that hired the foster mother, according to the Globe.

Child welfare advocates told the Globe the change should not have been made without more input from professionals in the child welfare field. "Our adoption folks are outraged this has happened," said Nancy Scannell, Director of Policy and Planning at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Oregon

Portland has become the first major U.S. city to have a children's bill of rights written by children themselves, according to The Oregonian.

A committee of more than 30 children wrote the bill of rights with the help of Karin Hansen, wife of Portland Mayor Tom Potter, and more than 400 children ratified the document during Portland's Convention on the Rights of Children and Youth last year.

Potter has been working to focus city government attention on children's problems since he took office in 2004. He has invited children to testify at the beginning of weekly City Council meetings, and he has rallied local leaders to support a regional tax for schools.

The three-page bill of rights states that children are entitled to a quality education from pre-K through high school; have a right to "physical, mental, and spiritual wellness;" are entitled to extracurricular activities at school, such as athletics and arts; and should be free from discrimination regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. The document also urges city and county governments to work to end homelessness and fight drug abuse.

South Carolina

Early childhood education officials are hoping a new study that notes the private child care industry's $787 million impact annually on the state's economy will prompt lawmakers to invest in the industry, The State newspaper reports.

Rick Noble, Executive Director of Richland County First Steps, says people commonly think of private child care "as a mom-and-pop sort of thing," but "we were really surprised by the magnitude of the industry."

Richland County First Steps commissioned the $15,000 statewide study in partnership with its parent agency, South Carolina First Steps, as well as the Richland County Education Council, the United Way of the Midlands, and Voices for South Carolina's Children.

An estimated 2,835 private child care facilities operate in South Carolina, employing some 15,000 people and serving 118,169 children annually. This allows 75,600 parents to work and collect a combined income of $2.4 billion a year, according to the study.

"It's just within the last decade or so that people are starting to think of the relationship between child care and early education and the relationship with economic development," Don Schunk, an Economist at the University of South Carolina School of Business told The State.

The report notes, however, that traditionally low wages in the industry make it difficult "to find and retain highly skilled child care workers because it is the high-quality candidates with strong educational backgrounds that are most in demand by the state's public school system, where average incomes are more than 2.5 times higher and benefit plans are more attractive."

The report recommended developing a child care quality rating system for South Carolina, requiring all economic development plans in the state address child care, and offering tax incentives for parents who choose quality child care and for businesses that offer it.


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