News - Barnes’ fumble

Kids’ No. 1 watchdog passed over

Back in 1993, state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver was already doing the job Roy Barnes gave to DeAlvah Simms last week. Barnes knew that; even so, on Thursday, he passed over Oliver to appoint Simms to be the state’s first child advocate, a watchdog position designed to investigate complaints involving the safety of children who are clients of the state Division of Family and Children Services. It was Mary Margaret Oliver who, in 1993, took DFACS to task for failing to implement a system for tracking child abuse cases across county lines. She criticized DFAC’s failure to use allocated funds to monitor child-abuse cases that ended in death. In the Senate — and, before that, in the House — she wrote, sponsored and passed dozens of laws to make the system work to save children’s lives.
She used her clout on the Appropriations Committee and the Rules Committee, and her authority as the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee to advocate for abused children. She used the media to publicize the deaths of scores of children and to alert the public, over and over, to the need for more caseworkers, more money, and more oversight of children’s services. She held public hearings to advance the agendas of the most committed child advocacy organizations in the state. She worked to streamline adoptions of abused and abandoned children.
For 20 years, Mary Margaret Oliver has been the legislative voice for abused children in this state.
And, oh yeah, sometimes she was not very nice while she was doing these things. Sometimes she was downright rude as she pounded her head against the brick wall of ignorance and denial that seems to shelter some politicians from the noise of children’s screams.
Most of her colleagues forgave her for this. Her cantankerousness was the subject of gossip, but it did not prevent her from soberly forging alliances and passing legislation to save children’s lives — and occasionally, even their childhoods.
Barnes’ failure to appoint Mary Margaret Oliver to a position she practically embodied suggests that he lacks the will to avoid playing politics with children’s lives. DeAlvah Simms is probably a wonderful advocate for children. But no matter how devoted she may be, she is a distant second-best choice for the job.
Having a child advocate’s office is probably a good idea but, thanks to the governor’s intervention, the office has a miniscule budget and little independent power. For several weeks, Barnes played possum with the appointment itself, needlessly delaying the startup of services. And in choosing Simms over Oliver, he obnoxiously pointed to Simm’s mothering of a child as part of her “unique” qualifications, a comment that insults every childless child’s advocate in the state.
Nor has Simms projected a very watchdog-ish stance in her first brief foray with a statewide audience. At her introductory press conference, she chose to minimize the hurdles facing her and the agency, rather than use the platform to sound an alarm. Under most other circumstances, this would be appropriate for such an event, but the problems facing DFACS aren’t ordinary: With working conditions reminiscent of trench warfare, 39 percent annual worker turnover, thousands of underserved children teetering on an abyss of sexual and physical abuse and a recalcitrant Legislature that refuses to provide enough money for the agency to stanch the bleeding, we should be seeing this woman’s tonsils every single time she gets within 10 feet of a camera.
The child advocate’s office is starting out with a budget of $300,000, which is only $128,000 less than the state of Georgia is spending this year to “enhance” trade with countries like Argentina. After paying the director’s salary and printing up some letterhead, that $300,000 should just about cover a couple of boxes of condolence cards, some Kleenex and the phone bill. Meanwhile, we dump so much money in the laps of the boneheads who “serve” on the PSC that their brains fall asleep.
In the interest of perpetuating a mind-bogglingly petty political tiff, Gov. Barnes has now fumbled the best chance he had to lower the body count at DFACS during the remainder of his first term in office. Let that be his legacy: he deserves it.

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