Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2008

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Children's Issues in the News


A new child welfare law went into effect January 1 that allows the public to gain access to detailed information about children who are killed in cases of suspected abuse or neglect.

Previously, state privacy laws prevented the release of most details surrounding the deaths of children in foster care or of children who had been investigated by social services, including medical records, risk assessments on families, details on foster parents, and casework logs. The new law allows the public the right to obtain much of that information without a costly and lengthy court fight.

"We hope and expect it will be a very powerful tool to find out what's going on and to advocate for reforms, if reforms will help save the lives of children," Ed Howard with the Children's Advocacy Institute told the Contra Costa Times.

Similar bills languished in the state legislature for years due to opposition from child welfare officials and the union that represents social workers. The bill eventually signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was rewritten to address their concerns, particularly the privacy of siblings, according to the Contra Costa Times.

On another front, foster care parents are raising their voices over the issue of inadequate foster care rates and rising costs of living. Last fall, they filed a lawsuit in federal district court demanding the state raise assistance rates to cover the actual cost of caring for children in care, the Orange County Register reports.

The suit, filed by the California State Foster Parent Association, Legal Advocates for Permanent Parenting, California State Care Providers, and the Children's Advocacy Institute, claims John Wagner, Director of the state Department of Social Services, and Mary Ault, Deputy Director of the department's Children and Family Services Division, violated the federal Child Welfare Act by failing to pay foster parents adequate reimbursement rates.

According to the Orange County Register, the state did not raise rates between 2001 and 2007 to catch up with the rising cost of living, leading to a drop in foster families statewide. The California legislature approved a 5% rate increase that took effect at the beginning of this year, bringing the average payment per foster child to $530 a month. The suit points to a 2005 study by the California Budget Project that determined the minimum cost of raising a child in the Bay Area is $709 a month.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Hawaii has filed a lawsuit against the state's Department of Education for violating certain provisions of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which provides states with federal grants for homeless programs.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of three families but seeks class-action status, meaning an estimated 900 homeless children in the state could be affected. The suit claims Hawaii receives about $200,000 a year in McKinney-Vento Act money but has failed to comply with requirements for tracking and educating homeless children. The suit also contends the Department of Education was made aware of the shortcomings in April 2006 when the U.S. Department of Education released the findings in a report, according to the Honolulu Star Bulletin.

Alice Greenwood, one of the suit's plaintiffs, said her adopted 6-year-old son missed 33 days of school in 2006 because of inadequate transportation, which is required by law. "Every child deserves an education," Greenwood said in a statement from the ACLU. "He shouldn't be punished just because he is homeless. It's not his fault."


State officials have set up a unique early-warning system to spot preschoolers who may be getting excessive medication for mental illness, and to help doctors make more informed decisions when they prescribe drugs for very young children, the Boston Globe reports.

The new system was established after a 4-year-old Massachusetts girl, Rebecca Riley, died from taking three drugs to treat bipolar disorder and hyperactivity. Riley's death was a "wake-up call," says John Straus, Vice President for Medical Affairs at the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership, one of the organizations managing mental health care for children under MassHealth, the state insurance program for lower-income families.

"If the behavior is extreme enough to require this level of medication, we ought to make sure that the behavior exists," the Globe quotes Straus.

The state Medicaid program is analyzing records for 82,900 children under age 5, looking for children taking at least three psychiatric drugs or a single powerful antipsychotic drug. The early-warning system is designed to ensure a high rate of prescriptions is not an error caused by multiple doctors writing prescriptions, and it will check to make sure the drugs are not potentially harmful when combined.

Reviewers will also examine the child's history for signs of abuse, emotional problems, and other issues aside from mental illness. Officials say if the tracking system works, it could be expanded to many of the 300,000 Massachusetts children under age 5 who are not in the MassHealth program.

The Boston Globe notes that Texas officials adopted a similar early-warning system in 2006 for mental health care of children in state foster care, and they saw an immediate drop in prescriptions of psychiatric drugs for children under age 18 after doctors were contacted who prescribed large doses of psychiatric medications.

New Jersey

New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled in September to uphold two appeals court opinions mandating the State Health Benefits Commission pay for speech, occupational, and behavioral therapies for a 5-year-old boy with autism. The boy's father, a deputy attorney general for the state, waged a two-year fight on behalf of his son, according to the Star-Ledger.

"It's too early to tell what the ramifications will be, but we think it's precedent-setting, ground-breaking," the Star-Ledger quotes Art Ball, Governmental Affairs Director for the New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community. "We'd like to figure a way to expand this so everybody can benefit, but it's not going to be easy."

The boy's parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Micheletti, estimate their son's care costs them about $35,000 a year.

New York

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has embarked in a bold experiment to get parents in low-income neighborhoods more involved in their children's education and overall health. The newly launched Opportunity NYC program is paying families a modest amount for small tasks, such as $50 for getting a library card or $100 to take a child to the dentist, an article in Newsweek explains.

Bloomberg raised more than $40 million in private funds to pay for the program, modeled on a 10-year-old Mexican program called Opportunidades, which has successfully reduced poverty in rural areas and been adopted by more than 20 countries. Opportunity NYC is the first of its kind in the United States, according to Newsweek. The idea behind the program is called conditional cash transfer, and to find out if it works, the city is enlisting 5,000 families to take part. Half will receive the incentive money, and the other half, functioning as a control group, will not.

Both liberals and conservatives have criticized the program. "At first blush, this offends every sensibility I have," Newsweek quotes James Oddo, the Republican minority leader of the New York City Council. "But then the fiscal conservative in me takes over, and I think maybe it will cost me less as a taxpayer to pay a little on the front end."

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