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In these lean budget times, there’s a lot of talk about “right-sizing” government. Recently I’ve also heard people speak of what government “must” do versus what government “should” do and that in these tough times, we have to let a lot of the “shoulds” go. But indulge me for a moment as I think about kids.

The other day one of my colleagues pointed out a few “shoulds” for kids. Kids should do their homework and they should brush their teeth every day. Technically, these aren’t “musts.” If they don’t do their homework this weekend, they’re not going to be expelled from school on Monday. If they don’t brush their teeth tonight, they’re not going to see all their teeth fall out by Tuesday. That said, even in tough times, we still make our kids do their homework and brush their teeth. Why? Because we know there are serious long term consequences if they fail to act responsibly today. The same is true for government, especially when it comes to caring for our kids and planning for the future of our state. That is why we MUST not continue to cut the budget of the Department of Human Services (DHS) in a manner that hurts kids. We have to fund some of the “shoulds,” even if it requires increases in revenue.

One of the biggest concerns I have about the proposed DHS budget [summary available on DHS’s home page. Scroll down to Joint Appropriations Committee Presentation] is the attempt to “save” money by putting additional responsibilities on existing workers. Those existing workers are already way over-burdened and shifting more responsibility to them, will simply result in the work not getting done – not because the workers don’t care, but because the workers have reached a breaking point, they are already stretched beyond all measure and cannot be asked to do more.

A few key points about the DHS budget:

–         At a time when more people are unemployed and thus needing help – including help to feed their children, the state is reducing the number of eligibility workers.

  • When it comes to children, helping eligible people access food stamps and other essential safety net services is not a should, it’s a must.

–         At a time of greater stress for families because of the economic situation, we’re investigating fewer cases of child abuse and neglect but also cutting in-home case management contracts by $2 million.

  • Those in-home services help families whose children were diverted from state custody but are considered at risk of abuse and neglect.
  • Protecting children from abuse and neglect is not a should, it’s a must.

Evidence says our DHS workers are already at a breaking point.

–         The most recent report from federal monitors appointed due to a lawsuit against the state related to conditions in the child welfare system shows a significant reduction in oversight of private placements for children in foster care at the same time we’ve seen an increased percentage of children abused while in state custody (abuse rate in report is double that allowed by the lawsuit settlement and triple the newer federal standard).

–         The same report shows a dangerous drop in case workers meeting the requirement to visit children in foster care twice a month. Goal is 95% of children visit with their case managers twice a month. Last report shows only 51% of cases reviewed met that standard.

–         Maybe even scarier, the most recent Child Fatality Review Panel report reveals more than a 30% increase in “homicide deaths associated with maltreatment findings.”

–         Also check out TV news coverage of the situation in Fulton County.

Is protecting children a should or must? Apparently not all of us see eye-to-eye. What do you think?

beth

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When I get the opportunity to talk to communities about the need for juvenile code reform and juvenile justices issues generally, the “point system” invariably comes up.  People often express frustration about its outcomes and confusion about why and how it should be used.  What’s known as the “point system” is actually a detention assessment instrument (DAI), a tool used to evaluate each arrested youth to determine the need for secure, locked confinement.

 Currently in Georgia, the DAI is used as a matter of policy and practice, not law.  Judge Teske of Clayton County Juvenile Court advocates using a DAI and writes in this Tuesday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution that he uses it because it is an “objective instrument that removes racial, ethnic and socioeconomic biases” and that “the proper use of the DAI provides that delicate balance between community safety and youth rehabilitation.”

I agree with his reasons for using the DAI.  Kids are detained to protect public safety. However only those who are a risk to public safety need to be detained. A DAI creates uniform, objective, and consistent criteria to determine which kids are a threat to public safety.  This is particularly important now, given that the Department of Juvenile Justice has fewer beds this year than last year.  Shouldn’t the kids that pose the greatest threat to public safety get these beds?

Is it time for Voices for Georgia’s Children and other public policy and advocacy organizations to create 501(c)(4)s, organizations that are permitted to have a greater impact on elections?

 The Supreme Court ruling last week was popularly characterized either as “restoring free speech to corporations” or as “unleashing corporate bank accounts on the election process.”  There has been less talk about the impact on non profits.  That’s partly because the decision addresses election law, not tax law.  According to the Alliance for Justice, an organization that helps non profits abide by the rules on political activity, “…501(c)(3)s still cannot endorse candidates or make independent expenditures suggesting who is the ‘better’ candidate.”

From my standpoint, I would repeat comments from my first blog post (Jan. 6).  Many special interests “… have resources at their command that we can only dream of:  legions of corporate experts, armies of industry employees, and decades of political relationships.” 

 Now these other special interests have access to the corporate pocketbook itself.  That’s good for them but now the voices of advocates for children or other social issues will be mere whispers in the noise of our elections and the political process.  Unless, as the Alliance for Justice intimates, we create 501(c)(4)s, the form of non-profit that will share in the rights created by the Supreme Court decision.  In their words, “…  Even if you think the case was wrongly decided, 501(c)(4)s and other nonprofit corporations (except for 501(c)(3)s) should take advantage of it–use it to strengthen democracy by increasing your public communications about the candidates and what’s best for the future of our country.”

Pat

Paper calendars are no good at the Capital during session unless you write in pencil and are willing to use an eraser!  Schedules are always subject to change with little than a few moments notice.

Please be aware that the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee meeting which was originally scheduled to begin at 9 am on Friday has been changed.  The Subcommittee will now meet  to hear the FY 10 amended budget for the Department of Early Care and Learning at 11 am in 450 CAP.

We will do our best to keep you posted on changes in scheduling throughout the session, but we urge you to also check committee schedules at the General Assembly’s website.

Various Appropriations Subcommittees will meet to hear budget presentations from agencies serving children in the upcoming days and weeks.  Here’s the schedule we have now:

Wednesday, January 27

House Appropriations- Education Subcommittee meets at  2 pm in 341 CAP for a public hearing on the FY 10 Amended Budget.  There will be a sign up sheet for members of the public who wish to speak, or you may email tammy.liner@house.ga.gov to asked to be placed on the list.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

House Appropriations- Human Resources Subommittee is scheduled to meet in 406 CLOB.  At 3 pm, they will hear a presentation from the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is scheduled to give its budget presentation at 4 pm.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Senate Appropriations- Education Subcommittee will meet at 9 a.a. is 450 CAP to review FY10 Amended Budget proposals for the Department of Early Care and Learning and the Department of Education.

Monday, February 1, 2010

House Appropriations- Education Subcommittee will meet at 2 pm in 341 CAP for budget presentations from the Department of Education and will accept public comments on the FY10 amended budget.

The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on HB 615, a bill that would, if passed, allow concealed weapons to be carried anywhere except courtrooms and jails/prisons. The bill would provide that public buildings no longer be off-limits to concealed firearms. If this version were to pass, firearms would be allowed in bars, schools, college dormitories and all campus buildings, daycare centers, churches and all establishments that are open to the public unless the property owner prohibits weapons.

 Do you have concerns?  If so, make your voice heard by attending the hearing at 1:30 in room 132 of the Capitol .

The Capitol was abuzz today with news that Speaker Ralston has asked the Appropriations Committee to craft a budget that does not rely on the Governor’s proposed provider tax to fund Medicaid. 

 At last week’s budget presentation on her department’s budget, Commissioner of the Department of Community Health (DCH) Rhonda Medows explained that her department had very few budget options.  When Georgia accepted federal funds, it agreed not to cut eligibility or benefits.  Dr. Medows stated that, without additional funds, Georgia would either have to make deep cuts to provider fees or end the Medicaid program.

It is my understanding that Speaker Ralston’s charge to the Appropriations Committee was to find cuts throughout the entire budget, not just DCH’s budget.  Many of us expect that this may lead to even deeper cuts in K-12 education which, adjusted for inflation, will fall to its lowest funding level in a decade in FY 11.

Will this exercise in extracting even more savings from a skeletal budget lead legislators to conclude that they cannot merely cut themselves out of this fiscal situation?  Will they consider revenue measures such as the tobacco tax?  Will there be further cuts to education, child welfare,public health,  juvenile justice, and other programs that ensure that our children have a brighter future?

 We’ll be watching.

Two Films, Two Routes From Poverty, that’s the headline on an article written by A.O. Scott in the New York Times back in November. Yes, November. And yes, I know blogs are supposed to be timely. So why am I writing this now? Because I can’t seem to get that article out of my head.

As you can probably guess, the “two films” referenced are Precious and The Blindside and the NYTimes article’s author addresses a variety of tough topics from race to political ideology. The author generally argues that The Blindside represents a more conservative approach to poverty – one that is “individual, charitable and, at least implicitly faith-based;” while implying the approach seen in Precious is more liberal because it is “sanctioned and supported by the state.” I’m not sure that’s right. Yes, the players who help Precious are mostly state employees – teachers and social workers but in many ways they’re going beyond their state-sanctioned role. I think the key sentence in the entire article is

Both movies tell stories that suggest a way out of poverty, brutality and domestic calamity for certain lucky individuals while saying very little about how those conditions might be changed.

And that is the point I can’t get out of my head. Why don’t we do more to change conditions, not just individual lives? The story of Michael Oher, the young man who makes good in The Blindside is a great story. He’s a great hero and someone clearly worth cheering for. The Tuohys, the family who help him out and eventually become his legal guardians, are also clearly good people – people you’d want on your side and people who deserve a thank you for making the world a bit better place. That said, if our only approach to grinding poverty, child abuse and so many other social ills is on an individual level, then I fear there will always be another Michael Oher in desperate need of a helping hand.

I’m not okay with that. I don’t want there to be any more children in desperate need. I want to live in a state where everyone and every family has the ability to make it, has the resources they need, the roof over their head, the access to health care, to a high-quality education. I am an advocate and proud of that title because we need systems change. I am eternally grateful to those out there who “help one” but I also encourage you to speak for all. Keep following Voices’ blog, sign up for our action alerts and when the word goes out that your senator or representative needs to hear from you, take the time to act. Help us change the way things work so that all kids have a shot, not just the “lucky” ones.

As I write this post, the clock reads “1:09 am,” yet I can’t sleep, in part due the bad news for Georgia’s kids that keeps reverberating in my brain.

And, I wonder… which of our dreams for the future of Georgia’s children have been dashed by the current budget crisis?

I’ve emerged from a sobering three days spent listening to various heads of the state agencies presenting their proposed budgets for the remainder of the current fiscal year and FY 2011.

Just a few of the cuts to services that affect children throughout the state include:
• Cutting $800 million in the basic funding schools receive this year and in FY 2011;
• Reducing pre-adoption assistance contracts with organizations that assist DHS in recruiting and screening potential adoptive homes;
• Cutting $1.3 million in FY 10 for the Independent Living Program for youth aging out of foster care;
• Cutting $518,000 from family violence reduction programs in FY 10;
• Cutting food stamp eligibility worker positions;
• Reducing funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers;
• Cutting Medicaid provider rates; and
• Eliminating resource coordinators who work with Georgia pre-K families.

These cuts must be giving agency heads nightmares.

B.J. Walker, Commissioner of Human Services, called cuts to her agency “painful” and said that some cuts would result in the agency not being able to deliver the same standard of services. She said that the budget crisis has required her and her staff to take a hard look at “what are ‘must dos’ versus ‘should dos’ and ‘nice to dos’” for the kids in her agency’s care.

Secretary of Education, Kathy Cox, told legislators that the deep cuts to the Department of Education will mean than failing schools will not get the assistance they need to improve and ensure better outcomes for Georgia’s students.

And, Dr, Rhonda Medows who leads the Department of Community Health, told lawmakers that unless they approve proposals to generate new revenue by instituting hospital and Medicaid provider fees, they will have to either drastically cut rates to Medicaid providers or cut the entire Medicaid program upon which 1.6 million Georgians and an entire healthcare industry relies.

Despite the grim news, I know this: members of the legislative leadership do care about our youngest citizens and our strong community of child advocates will speak up for kids throughout the legislative session.

This gives me the courage to hope for peaceful slumber and not nightmares when I finally shut my eyes.

In many ways, Massachusetts has held the spotlight throughout the majority of the national health reform conversation. For one, Massachusetts is unique in having passed legislation aimed at covering all within their state. For another, one of the most fervent champions for health reform is the late Senator Ted Kennedy who hailed from the state of Massachusetts.  And in the aftermath of this Tuesday’s Senatorial election in Massachusetts, our collective gaze turns once more to this attention-grabbing state.

But what is the level of significance that Massachusetts’ election has on the entirety of U.S. politics?

With the election of Senator Brown, a Republican, Senate Democrats have lost their supermajority. Technically speaking, Democrats had only comprised 58 of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate. But with 2 Independents caucusing with the Democrats, they had totalled 60–the magic number needed to override any filibuster on the health reform legislation. (For those who need a refresher from your courses in high school civics, a filibuster is a process used by legislators to either slow or completely block passage of legislation)  And following the election of Senator Brown, they total 59.

So now what?

Now the leaders who drafted and introduced the legislation must consider a variety of options on how to move forward with health reform. Check back with Voices’ website to read up on some of the options detailed within our forthcoming weekly legislative update.

Regardless of whatever option is chosen, the health reform process continues. I’m sure many of us in the health policy field had assumed that something concrete would have happened by now. Many of us who have been watching closely grow weary with each day, week, month that passes while the debate continues.

But we have to remember that the reforms of today will impact not only our generation but those to come as well.  It is not in vain that we continue to advocate for meaningful reform to our current health care system.

We must be determined.  And tireless.

Admins/Authors

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