Save The Savior Of Kids
Jeanne Milstein is the state’s child advocate: She has done the job for 11 years. She is something of a saint, albeit a hard-boiled one with a sense of humor.The child advocate works on issues ranging from mental health (Milstein says there is a near epidemic among our kids), to school safety, to the quality of state hospitals. She monitors drownings, suicides, the number of kids sent to out-of-state mental-health facilities (a shocking 357 kids, mostly autistic), to kids aging out of the DCF system. (It’s a huge problem. These are kids who have largely lived in institutions and must now find a way to live in society.)Moreover, the advocate’s office, though it monitors trends and issues reports, also devotes itself to individual cases. That is, it tries to save lives one by one.The advocate and her staff do not always succeed. But they never stop pitching.Necessity and statute mandate that the advocate is most concerned with the least of the least powerful (sick, abandoned and poor kids) and with the penultimate form of state power (short of the death penalty) — the power to take a child from his parents and his home. The advocate has a job that is never dull and never complete.In fact, the advocate knows she can never even catch up with the workload.Guess how much it costs to do this job?Roughly $833,000.As of today, the office, staffed by eight people (soon to be six), will cost approximately $632,000 per year. “Shared sacrifice” happened here.The state’s budget shortfall is $700 million.The governor says the budget gap will cost us $1.6 million a day, each day, until resolved.The child advocate costs us peanuts. To look out for vulnerable kids.And this office does not just “advocate” in the sense of jawing at press conferences. It investigates and recommends. It tries to learn for us.In recent months and years the advocate has done full-scale investigations and reports on the DCF hotline system; the Connecticut Court Appointed Special Advocate program; and youth access to psychiatric care, to name just three. In each case the searchlight has found kids falling through the safety net, and in at least one case significant changes were made.Yet the governor has targeted the child advocate’s office for cuts, and in one earlier budget incarnation, for elimination. The office is certainly in peril in a budget atmosphere like today’s.The governor himself says that there is no need, generally, for watchdogs if government is run well. And he says he wants to be the advocate of kids at risk.But that’s a naïve view of government and a dangerously naïve view of child welfare — dangerous for the kids.Check your James Madison: All power needs to be checked.Check your Jonathan Kozol. There is no 24/7 lobby, or superhero guardian, for poor, sick or endangered kids. The child advocate is the closest thing we have.It is interesting that the two GOP leaders in the Legislature, Sen. John McKinney and Rep. Larry Cafaro, are huge backers of Milstein and the advocate’s office. That’s because they recognize bang for the buck.How do you cut back an operation this lean?Six or seven people to make sure no kid gets lost and abandoned in the system?How do you cut the advocate when DCF has 10 layers of bureaucracy and 108 quality improvement officers?Milstein worries about two persistent problems in child welfare in this state. One is an overemphasis on placement and an underemphasis on evaluating programs. Too often in Connecticut, if we find a place to put a kid, we wash our hands and say that’s that. Just place him, store him, somewhere. Problem solved. Not.The second thing Milstein worries about is quality of implementation at DCF. Workers are well-trained, she says, but not always mentored or schooled in the practical implications of theory. She compares it to her boat. Milstein says she took a boating course and got 98 percent. Her first day in the water she ran her boat aground and bent the motor. Theory is important. So is experience.Milstein is not a demonizer or an ideologue. She is totally pragmatic. She looks at hard cases and what works and what does not. She is the first to say DCF is much better than it used to be. But the problems and pathologies of poor youth are outpacing the ability of government agencies to improve themselves.In any case, there is probably not a more productive person, or agency, in state government. The child advocate’s office is a bargain.Gov. Dannel Malloy’s very bad, undemocratic, un-Democratic and unliberal assumption is that state government does not need watchdogs.His empirical supposition is that the child advocate doesn’t matter much.He’s empirically wrong.Legislators need to save the advocate and her office. She saves kids.Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.