ANNAPOLIS – The governor’s administration and lawmakers are in a battle over the fate of the state office that oversees children’s programs.
The governor wants to strengthen the Office for Children, Youth and Families and is sponsoring a bill to extend it beyond its scheduled termination, or “sunset,” in June. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are counting the days until the office’s demise.
“It has always been a very difficult department,” said Delegate Frank Turner, D-Howard. “The difference is now it sunsets.”
The House Appropriations Committee took care of the problem by eliminating half the office’s staff last week in its proposed budget, only saving positions that work with children’s programs at the local level.
The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee proposed a similar budget, but chose to eliminate staff members only if legislation to continue the office fails.
“Why should we fund something that isn’t working,” said Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “It’s never done what it is supposed to do.”
Hollinger said she agreed with the House that it’s the local children’s board that does all the work and to therefore preserve what are called local managing boards.
“All of what was supposed to go (on) in there, goes (on) at the local level,” said Hollinger. “That’s important. That’s where the services are. People don’t go to the state for that, they go locally.”
The Office for Children, Youth and Families was created in 1978 with the plan to make the state a safer, healthier place for children to live.
It receives state money to pay employee salaries and to administrate money sent to local managing boards, which distribute the money to local contractors benefiting children.
The office also oversees a subcabinet where department heads discuss children’s issues.
The governor’s administration is sponsoring a bill to promote this subcabinet to the Children’s Cabinet and make the Office for Children, Youth and Families a permanent entity.
House Appropriations Committee members devised the plan to spare unwanted staff after learning the office was not likely to survive.
“With the bill moving, it was appropriate to come up with a plan if in fact the OCYF is not reauthorized,” said Turner. “We don’t anticipate that the bill will pass.”
The committee has not decided where to transfer those local boards. None of the positions with the office of the special secretary were preserved.
“We believe the (local managing boards) is the only functioning part of it,” said Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, an Appropriations member. “The rest of it is policy.”
Michael Walsh, spokesman for the Office for Children, Youth and Families, said it is an important entity because it’s a place where all a child’s needs could be met in one agency.
“People fully do not understand the collaboration approach,” Walsh said.
The collaboration among departments fostered by the agency is an important function, he said. The secretaries meet whenever there is an emergency situation with a certain child and come up with a solution.
If lawmakers get rid of the office, “we are setting the state back 30 years,” said Walsh. “We return to groups slipping through the cracks.”
Although members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee call the office a “failed experiment,” they decided to only eliminate positions if the extension does not pass.
Committee members also said they favor a bill or an amendment extending the program another year to give legislators a chance to come up with a better solution for Maryland children instead of what she calls the “doomsday scenario” the House proposed.
“I personally feel we need to extend the sunset,” said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George’s. “This should not be something that is rushed.”
Despite the coordination, statistics for Maryland children have not gotten any better, she said.
Still, M. Teresa Garland, Special Secretary for Office for Children, Youth and Families, said she is thankful the Senate made the decision depending on the results of the bill.
If the bill passes, she would be promoted to a Cabinet-level position, if it fails, she loses her job.
“It’s a very disheartening feeling,” said Garland.