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Last-Minute Plans To Reorganize Children's Agencies Stir Questions

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Washington--Efforts by officials of the Department of Health and Human Services to reorganize agencies that focus on children have evoked a suspicious response from members of the Congress and children's advocacy groups.

The proposed restructuring, which would eliminate the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families as a single bureaucratic entity, is defended by officials and some lobbyists as a way of improving and streamlining the department's operations.

A separate but related proposal would reorganize the child-oriented agencies at the regional level.

The details of the proposals have not been made public and are still under review, Administration officials said last week.

Critics argue that the plans could weaken cohesion among programs and further erode services they say have already been hurt by staff cutbacks.

Recalling past efforts to reshuffle programs ranging from foster care to Head Start, skeptics also worry that the proposals represent a last-minute effort by the Reagan Administration to undermine services for children.

"Here we are at the 23rd hour and the 50th minute of this Administra-tion, and this is being done with no public comment, no Congressional oversight," said David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. "It's like changing the deck chairs on the Titanic."

New Agency Structure

Currently, bureaus overseeing Head Start, children's services, and family and youth services report to the commissioner of the a.c.y.f., who is responsible to the assistant secretary for the office of human-development services.

Under the department's preliminary reorganization plan, as described by internal documents and agency staff, the a.c.y.f. would no longer exist. Instead, the three bureaus under it would become separate administrations, with commissioners who report directly to the o.h.d.s. assistant secretary.

Sharon Messinger, a spokesman for the o.h.d.s., said the plan would elevate the "stature and visibility" of the bureaus by giving them a direct chain of command to the assistant secretary. It would also, she said, help the agency more effectively administer a "plethora" of new programs enacted in recent years as a result of "broadening Congressional interest" in youth and family issues.

Internal documents show that the a.c.y.f. has gained responsibility for 10 new programs since 1981. Its overall budget has increased from $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion.

Ms. Messinger said last week that the proposal would be submitted for consideration to President-elect George Bush's transition team.

Splintering Services?

Critics have charged that the plan could splinter services for children at a time when experts are calling for better linkages between programs.

"The best thinking in the country says that we should be moving in the opposite direction by trying to consolidate all children's services under one roof," wrote Mr. Liederman in a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Otis R. Bowen.

In an Oct. 28 letter to the secretary, the chairmen of four Congressional education panels said that they were "unaware of any evidence suggesting that abolishing the only agency within the Federal government whose sole focus is improving the lives of our most vulnerable children will be in the best interest of these children and their families.''

"This move is especially disturbing in light of the consensus among national public- and private-sector leaders on the need to provide the healthiest start in life for all our children to assure that they are able to lead productive adult lives," wrote Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachu8setts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and Representatives Augustus F. Hawkins of California and Dale E. Kildee of Michigan.

But supporters of the proposal said it would serve to strengthen efforts to help children. The plan would "not in any way splinter the association of these programs," Ms. Messinger argued.

"There is a line of thinking" among children's advocates, observed June P. Bucy, executive director of the National Network of Runaway Youth Services, that the plan could give more prominence to youth initiatives and eliminate "a whole system of folks that have to fondle every piece of paper that comes by."

"It seems to us that if you have a commissioner directly responsible for Head Start as opposed to a.c.y.f., that just strengthens the program," said Jim K. Matlack, executive director of the National Head Start Association.

In a letter to Dr. Bowen, Repesentative Major Owens, chairman of the House select education subcommittee, and Representative Ted Weiss, chairman of the House human resources and intergovernmental relations subcommittee, raised another issue--the effect on the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, which is housed within the children's bureau.

They charged that the restructuring could violate the intent of the 1988 amendments to the Child Abuse Act, by overburdening the center's director with other responsibilities and by adding a layer of authority between the center and the head of the children's administration.

Ms. Messinger maintained, however, that the duties of the center's director would not change under the plan and that he or she would be "exclusively responsible" for the center.

Regional Plan Criticized

The other reorganization plan, which is expected to be announced within a few months, would expand a pilot program launched in 1985 to all 10 of the a.c.y.f.'s regional offices.

The new structure, which is already in place in four regions, would replace the Head Start, Child Welfare, and Runaway Youth units with units more broadly reponsible for community and state programs.

The proposal would result in a loss of Head Start specialists, Mr. Matlack maintained, and thus contribute to "a gradual decline in services being provided from regional offices to local programs."

In their letter to Dr. Bowen, the four Congressional chairmen asked why the pilot program was being expanded, and urged the release of an evaluation of it.

A recent review by the General Accounting Office, according to an aide to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, highlighted "some positive as well as negative" effects of the pilot program.

But the g.a.o.'s review points, the aide said, to "a long-term erosion of resources at the regional level to administer the Head Start program."

While the agency's reorganiza4tion plan "isn't necessarily the problem," the aide said, "we're still looking for more evidence that it is a necessary and positive thing."

Working Smarter

Pamela Coughlin, director of regional operations for the human-development-services office, acknowledged last week that personnel cuts at o.h.d.s.--reducing the number of staff members from about 2,000 to 1,000 over the last 10 years--have resulted in a loss of "some expertise'' in the regions.

"When you do that kind of dramatic cutback, you have to look at how best to restructure to serve constituents," she said.

Ms. Coughlin added, however, that regional offices have "been working smarter and better" through the use of contracts and interagency agreements to provide early-childhood, health, and other specialized services.

She also said that the office has used data gathered in an unreleased Continued on Page 19

Child-Agency Plans

Viewed Skeptically

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internal evaluation of the pilot program to propose the most effective model for new regions being added to the pilot.

Observers acknowledged that the success of the reorganization will depend on how it is implemented. But many said last week that the timing and developmental history of the proposals raised some questions.

"On the one hand, it looks like a way to raise the visibility of children, because in fact there will be more commissioners sitting around the table wearing children's hats," said Thomas L. Birch, legislative counsel for the National Child Abuse Coalition.

"On the other hand, because we know the Administration in the past has tried to pull some of these children's programs out of the current makeup, it gives one cause to worry that there may be another step--not necessarily planned now--that would be easier to execute at another time."

Added Ms. Bucy: "If this weren't the 13th verse of the same song, probably no one would be concerned."

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