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State's Office of Child Advocacy Faces Uncertain Future
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HARTFORD, Conn. – Next Wednesday marks a new fiscal year, and state lawmakers have yet to pass a new budget. With an $8.7 billion projected deficit for the next two years, everything is on the table. Governor Jodi Rell’s budget plan calls for no new taxes, but there are significant cuts, including the elimination of some 70 state agencies. WNPR’s Ray Hardman visited one of those agencies- the office of the Child Advocate.

We Owe It to the Children

Governor Jodi Rell presented the first version of her two year budget back in February.

“…yes, there is pain, there is sacrifice, and there is some long overdue trimming. Simply put, the bloat of bureaucracy is no longer affordable,” she said to the General Assembly. “It starts with fewer state agencies. My budget eliminates ten of them. All serve worthy purposes on paper. But all have functions largely duplicated by regular state agencies.”

When Connecticut State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein heard the statement, she was “stunned.”

“We immediately assembled as a staff at this table right here, and said, ‘okay, we need to have a strategy in place; we owe it to the children who’s voices would be lost’,” said Milstein.

The Office of the State Child Advocate was created in 1998 by former Connecticut Governor John Rowland, and the staff clearly takes issue with the Rell’s blanket statement – that their office is duplicating services.

“One of the things we’re pretty good at is rattling cages, and getting people to think outside the box,” said Mickey Kramer, the Associate Child Advocate. “We’re pretty masterful sometimes at getting multiple agencies around a table to talk about what they can contribute and what they are responsible for. These systems are complicated. There is nothing easy about them.”

Assistant Child Advocate Julie McKenna said these systems are complicated, and there’s nothing easy about them.

“It’s very easy to get confused, to get kind of over your head,” said McKenna. “So I spend a lot of time with parents and grandparents coaching them through. I either have the ability of ending a call with someone saying ‘thank you, you have been very helpful,’ or I have the ability to bring the problem to this incredible team and we come up with a plan.”

Assistant Child Advocate Faith Vos Winkel agreed, saying that’s sort of the theme of their eclectic, multiple disciplinary group.

“We all have principal assignments of the statute,” said Vos Winkel, whose principle assignment is to coordinate the activities for the Child Fatality Review, a critical and often heartbreaking function of the Office. Once a month, the panel meets to review the circumstances of a child’s death. “So we look at all the deaths of children under the age of eighteen. Principally trying to peel back a little bit on how kids die, and form various systems.”

A Call to Order

State Medical examiner H. Wayne Carver sits at the front of the classroom wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a tradition at the Child Fatality Review panel’s monthly meeting to bring some levity to the grim task of the panel.

On this particular day, the panel reviewed the death of a teenager who crashed his car into a telephone pole. A picture of a horribly mangled automobile flashed on the screen. Dr. Carver explained the circumstances of the fatality:

“Basically lost control of the vehicle on a side street, it was 11 o’clock in the morning,” said Carver. “The driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, but from the damage of the car, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”

Panel members then weighed-in on the circumstances of the death, and what could have been done to prevent this kind of tragedy in the future.

An Uncertain Future

The work of the Child Fatality Review panel has been instrumental in crafting legislation, including Connecticut’s graduated driver’s license system, and most recently their investigation of a Connecticut boy who accidently shot himself with an assault weapon at a gun show in Massachusetts. Their findings helped create a Connecticut law that prohibits adults from letting minors shoot assault weapons.

But the work of the Panel could soon come to an end. The Governor’s budget eliminates the office, with Jeanne Milstein’s position being folded into the office of Connecticut’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Milstein wondered exactly what her role will be if that happens.

“So essentially what I would be doing is some public education, a little bit of advocacy,” said Milstein. “The fatality investigation work would be gone, the ability to investigate and issue reports, plus, I would just be one person. You saw the richness and depth and breadth of what people have to offer here. I couldn’t do it.”

Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have voiced their support of the Office of the Child Advocate, and the Democrats’ budget plan keeps the agency. But with a new fiscal year eight days away and no budget in place for the office of the Child Advocate and many other state agencies, the future is far from certain.