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Youth Today: Children's Rights, Children's Advocates, Children's Cabinets

In late March, the Rhode Island Foster Parents Association (RIFPA) staged call-ins to the legislature to oppose the budget cuts to youth in the child welfare system. Par for the course? Not quite.

While the tactic was standard, the proposed cuts were not. In an interesting twist in what many would call a reasonably progressive state, Governor Donald L. Carcieri (R) has proposed saving the state $17 million (approximately 5 percent of the $360 million needed to balance the budget) by rolling the clock back on services to transition-aged youth.

Read More…

Building Better Lives for Youth Leaving Foster Care. Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.

Ready by 21 Change Maker Update: State-Level Children's Cabinets and Commissions Come Into Their Own. Forum for Youth Investment.

Connected by 25: Improving the Life Chances of the Country's Most Vulnerable 14 - 24 Year Olds. Michael Wald and Tia Martinez.

As of July 1st, the upper age of jurisdiction for all youth involved in the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) would be lowered from 21 to 18, rendering more than 800 young adults immediately ineligible for housing, health and other services. Those over 18 would also become ineligible for placement at the Rhode Island Training School for juveniles and adjudication in Family Court. And, reports of child abuse and neglect involving youth age 16 or over would no longer go to the department for investigation, but would be handled by local police.

These changes fly in the face of efforts underway in other states to extend eligibility and expand transitional services. They are being proposed by a state that still offeres free in-state tuition to youth who are wards of the state. And they are so contrary to current thinking that Voices for America’s Children has encouraged members from other states to weigh in to oppose the cuts.

How did the Governor arrive at this decision? I don’t know. But I do know that Rhode Island has a Children’s Cabinet that was created by state law in 1991. Purpose: to address all cross-departmental issues related to children and youth services. Members: the directors of DCYF and seven departments (health, mental health, human services, labor, K-12, higher education and administration).

How does the Rhode Island Children’s Cabinet figure into this story? News reports have left that unanswered.

So why use this column to ask a question I can’t answer? Because increasingly organizations such as the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Forum are seeing these kind of high-level coordinating bodies as a potentially effective way to get beyond “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when it comes to creating state youth policies. The efficacy of these coordinating bodies is brought into question by the juxtaposition in any state of an established Children’s Cabinet with policy proposals that, on the surface, epitomize regressive deck-chair shuffling. Without significant inter-agency coordination, there is little doubt that many of the youths prematurely pushed out of DCYF will resurface in the government’s adult service systems with added problems and at added expense.

Whatever the background story is in Rhode Island, as a policy researcher, I want to know how Children’s Cabinets can be empowered and used to help shape tough budgetary choices, play active roles in crafting responses to proposed cuts in their states, present alternatives for consideration, track progress and communicate outcomes. I want to understand what the public should expect them to accomplish and how the public should assess their effectiveness.

Clearly there are limits on the roles children’s cabinets can play. This is why we need parallel coordinating efforts outside of government to encourage non-profits and advocates to also align their efforts. The silos appear just as frequently outside of government as within.

But having staffed one of these councils (The President’s Crime Prevention Council, 1995) I know that structured, staffed and charged correctly, these high-level coordinating bodies are uniquely positioned not only to define big picture outcomes (e.g., all children will enter school ready to learn, leave school prepared to lead productive lives, be safe in their homes, schools and neighborhoods), but to systematically achieve them.

From Maryland to New Mexico there are examples of strong cabinets or commissions that are tackling tough challenges. But there are also examples of mediocre commitment, migrating missions and missed opportunities. If we believe that these coordinating bodies can be effective, then we have to be prepared to question their performance when they are not and advocate for changes in either their form or their functioning. How does your state’s coordinating body rate?

Pittman, K. (2007, May). "Children's Rights, Children's Advocates, Children's Cabinets." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment, Impact Strategies, Inc. A version of this article appears in Youth Today, 16(5), 19.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
May 1, 2007
Youth Today--May 2007.pdf105.07 KB