- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A top item on child-welfare advocates’ wish list for President-elect Barack Obama is the revival of a White House Conference on Children and Youth, to be held in 2010.

President Theodore Roosevelt held the first of these “state of the child” conferences in 1909, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) says.

Except for World War II years, six other White House administrations held massive conferences on children every 10 years - in 1919, 1929, 1939, 1950, 1960 and 1970.

Almost 40 years have passed since the last White House conference, and hopes are high that Mr. Obama will bring some “change” on this issue, too.

As a U.S. senator from Illinois, Mr. Obama co-sponsored a bill to convene and allocate $10 million for such a conference.

Moreover, said Christine James-Brown, president and chief executive officer of CWLA, “When you look at his worldview, he understands the power of tapping into communities - tapping into their expertise, their desires and their interests. That’s really what a conference at its best will do.”

“It’s not ‘a conference at the White House,’” she added. “It’s an opportunity to bring people in communities together to think about not what is the child welfare system per se, but how can we do a better job of providing safety and permanence and well-being for our children.”

Previous White House conferences on children and youths, which were attended by hundreds of delegates, led to the creation of foster care, the federal Children’s Bureau and congressional subcommittees dedicated to children’s issues.

Likely issues at a 2010 White House conference would be strategies for preventing abuse and neglect, finding permanent homes for foster children of all ages so they don’t “age out” without a family, and building connections among the systems that serve children, such as health care, juvenile justice and education. A seamless system “would be more responsive and less soiled,” said Ms. James-Brown.

Another big issue is the “disproportionality” of black and minority children in foster care, said Gloria Batiste-Roberts, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers.

Almost 500,000 children were in foster care in fiscal 2007, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. While 40 percent of these children are white, black and Hispanic children are overrepresented - blacks are 12 percent of the population but 32 percent of the foster care caseload; Hispanics are almost 13 percent of the population, but 19 percent of the caseload.

“Despite all the work we’ve done through the years, in terms of prevention - drug abuse and mental health challenges are just overwhelming,” said Ms. Batiste-Roberts. A conference in 2010, she added, is “a necessity.”

Mr. Obama’s child-welfare record includes support for the national sex-offender database and combating methamphetamine abuse by restricting bulk sales of meth ingredients, setting tougher criminal penalties for meth production and trafficking and creating grants to address meth use in communities.

The president-elect further supports nurse home-visiting programs for at-risk families, job training and development programs for teen foster youths and “universal health legislation” with children as “mandatory beneficiaries,” CWLA says.

• E-mail Cheryl Wetzstein.



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