Have you ever read an old document and, as you settled into it, you found yourself confused about whether you are reading something from the past or the present? Perhaps you felt a reader’s deja vu and had the sense the old document in your hands could have been written this morning!

I had the experience this week. It started when I pulled a 1985 document from our archives at Louisiana Methodist Children’s Home.

Cover of 1985 “Louisiana – Troubled Children, Troubled Systems”
Louisiana: Troubled Children, Troubled Systems – A Blueprint for Change, is a 72-page plan of recommendations for children’s services designed to address child abuse, juvenile justice, foster care, emotionally disturbed children, adolescent substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, developmental disabilities, primary prevention, fragmentation of services, the role of the private sector, and Louisiana’s lack of treatment services.

This comprehensive plan is now the 32-year-old product of a 21-member Commission on Children and Youth created by Governor Edwin Edwards by Executive Order. The Commission began its work in June of 1984.

The introductory words of “Troubled Children, Troubled Systems” could have been written a few minutes ago. They describe the immense wealth in natural resources Louisiana possesses and assert, “people constitute our greatest asset.”

The introduction continues, “Our children are part and parcel of that mighty resource. They are quite literally our future. And certainly they are fully as important as our land, our water, our factories and our oil. They need to be preserved and protected every bit as much as our environment. They need — indeed they require — our loving care and concern, so that they can fulfill their potential for solving those problems which we will pass on to them.” Etc.

As I read the 32-year-old, “Blueprint for Change”, I found myself having far too many deja vu moments for comfort. “Am I reading about the past or about the present?”

During the passing three decades, Louisiana has made some progress on children’s issues. However, because we have also suffered set backs, it would be difficult for anyone to say Louisiana is now properly addressing the needs of our children. We are not yet through improving opportunities for our state’s “troubled children” and correcting our “troubled systems” designed for their care.

Allow me to share quotes from April, 1985. The quotations are italicized. I caution, these words feel as fresh as this morning, Eclipse Day, August 21, 2017. (I will try to avoid the temptation to comment after each quote from 1985.)

* There is a need to develop “parenting centers” around the state.

(Okay, I’ll comment. Louisiana eventually created these centers as part of the Early Childhood Supports and Services program (ECSS). Then the ECSS centers were completely eliminated in a mid-year budget cut in December 14, 2012. Louisiana’s ECSS program was cited by the New York Times, ABC’s news show, “20/20”, and was noted in journals, textbooks and national conferences as being a role model for other states.)

* Recruitment and selection of qualified foster parents is a major problem.

* A major problem in Louisiana is the lack of specialized foster care facilities.

* Respite care and other support services for families would take some of the pressure off foster care.

* Louisiana needs a shelter care system designed to deal with emotional disturbed and abused or neglected children who now make up most of the foster care placements.

* Children and families need consistency of services.

* There is a certain population of youth labeled emotionally disturbed committed to public and private child caring and mental health institutions who have consistently “failed to respond” to community treatment. Their behavior is characterized by a lack of effective response, poor relationships with authority, as assaultive, destructive, or severe “acting-out” characteristics. This type of young person is frequently “shuttled” from agency to agency, accumulating reports that he/she is “unamenable to treatment”. As the label begins to stick, agencies are more and more reluctant to accept these clients. The mental health system disavows responsibility for them, claiming that these clients are “unsuitable for treatment”, and a correctional problem. Conversely, the juvenile justice system claims the problem is mental health related and the proper concern of the mental health system. A means for assigning these children to a system that will serve them should be developed.

* Teen mothers all too often lack a good parenting role model and a support system of husband and family. They know little about proper nutrition for themselves and their babies and have inadequate resources to provide proper food and shelter. Far too many have unrealistic expectations of their children, expecting them to provide the love missing in their own lives.

* One of the major findings of the commission has been the discovery of the lack of comprehensive primary prevention programs for the children and adolescents of Louisiana. The Office of Prevention and Public Health Services in DHHR has responsibility for some prevention work, but has neither the staff nor the mandate to provide overall primary prevention.

* Local communities need to develop the belief and attitude that these are “our” children, not the children of the state of Louisiana. For when they are “our” children then “we” begin to meet their needs.

* There is too much rigidity within and between service delivery systems.

* There is no one central data base for children in Louisiana. Much of our present information, obtained from the present fragmented service delivery system is also badly fragmented and incomplete.

* Utilizing private providers represents a significant opportunity for the state. If the spirit of cooperation between the state and private provider can be encouraged, there is a great deal more that can be accomplished for the good of the children of this state.

* The private provider is over-regulated.

* Concern has arisen in recent months about out-of-state providers receiving state contracts. This situation merits review, and consideration should be given to prioritizing Louisiana providers and those with proven track records.

* There are significant gaps and specific needs which must be addressed.

* Louisiana lacks the overall long range planning necessary to assure a continuous, responsive service system, and the necessary data base upon which to base this planning.

* Prevention must be considered a top priority and must be done on comprehensive primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.

* Service needs in rural areas should be reviewed to determine where expansion of service is needed and how transportation for these services can be provided or improved.

* Effective after-care, especially for those who are emerging from institutional care, should be a larger part of the overall treatment process.

I could continue, but you get the idea. Many of the specific needs of Louisiana’s children which were identified in 1985 have not yet been adequately addressed.

That phrase in the introduction of “Troubled Children”, the one that states, “they are quite literally our future“, has already come to pass. The 13-year-olds in 1985 are now Louisiana’s 45-year-olds.

A generation or more has passed – some of those 45-year-olds, who were children in 1985, are now grandparents – and we are still struggling to meet the basic needs of our children in Louisiana. This lack of significant progress is the reason Louisiana’s history of child well-being is bleak.

For the faithless, Louisiana’s past offers little expectation of great improvement in child well-being. (And, unfortunately, unless we improve child well-being, Louisiana has little expectation of a great future.) However, for those with vision and courage, Louisiana is a land of child welfare opportunity!

In Louisiana, we have repeatedly identified problems. Through the decades, Commission after Commission has identified deficits in child well-being. Yet, we still lack the collective will to care well for our children. Our state refuses to prioritize children.

Louisiana FlagAs I wrote this past weekend, the message we must take to heart is visible on the Louisiana flag. In the center of our flag, the pelican of state sits in the midst of her nest, surrounded by her young, pricking her own breast and giving of herself to ensure the well-being of her young.

The lesson is in our state flag, Louisiana: We must be willing to prick our hearts for our children.

Rick Wheat, President/CEO
Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services

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