Governors usually try not to talk about the child welfare system in their state – unless of course they're issuing some proclamation celebrating the state's annual adoption day. Other than that, they prefer to keep silent since there is so little good news to report. A perfect example of the "duck and cover" school of non-leadership is Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. (See The wrong choice for HHS, March 1).
But things are different in Maine. This year, for at least the second time, Gov. John Baldacci made a point of mentioning child welfare during his State of the State address. That's because Baldacci has something to brag about.
"Smaller government doesn't mean we settle for less effective government," the governor said. "Let me give you an example. In Child Welfare, we have worked with families, schools and communities to reduce the number of children in foster care by one-third and to double the percentage of children placed with relatives and families. Government gets smaller, and children are healthier and happier."
Two people are primarily responsible for this. One is Mary Callahan, a longtime foster parent who got fed up with the fact that almost every child placed with her could have remained safely in her or his own home if only the birth parents had gotten as much help as she was getting as a foster parent. She wrote a book about it, Memoirs of a Babystealer, and led a successful grassroots reform effort. (One of Callahan's presentations to Maine leaders, given before things turned around, is on NCCPR's website here.)
The other is James Beougher, director of the Office of child and Family Services in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Beougher is part of what I have come to call the the Michigan Child Welfare Brain Drain – good people with innovative ideas who got fed up with having their efforts thwarted by craven political leadership in that state. So they took those good ideas to more receptive states and localities – and wound up giving their political leaders a chance to actually brag about child welfare.
Mr. President: It's not too late to change your mind about Sebelius and nominate John Baldacci to run HHS instead.