CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
26 NOVEMBER 2003
Thirty-eight times case workers from the Department of Youth and Family Services visited a state-subsidized foster home in Camden County. Somehow they never noticed that Vanessa and Raymond Jackson's four adopted sons were slowly starving and rummaging through a neighbor's trash for food.
Child advocate seeks solutions
Kevin M. Ryan, New Jersey's first child advocate,
began his five-year position on Oct. 14.
Caseworkers track children with index cards and Post-It notes, leaving some to fall through the cracks, according to Kevin M. Ryan, the state's first child advocate. Last year, caseworkers dealt with an average of 50 children; some had more than 100 troubled youngsters to check on.
Overhauling the state's child welfare system is, by all accounts, a daunting task. Ryan can easily list the system's various failures: The lack of computerized tracking for children in the system, the mountainous case loads. But while pointing out problems is necessary, it's not as courageous as finding solutions, he said.
Lending a hand
What takes courage, according to Ryan, is to do the actual work of caring, whether volunteering as a coach or becoming a foster family. The child welfare system does have its unsung heroes, such as “Miss Vera.” The foster mother recently took in one of the Jackson boys; she also cares for three disabled children. With her husband, who died in August, she raised five children of her own, as well as three foster children that she adopted, Ryan recounted.
When Ryan visited last week, “Miss Vera” was gearing up for Thanksgiving, the first since the loss of her spouse. Along with a turkey and all the trimmings, she will have all her children and grandchildren. "Every single day she's cooking them eggs, she's disciplining them, she's loving them. She's taken six shattered families and made them into a new family."
Power to act
On Thursday, workers climbed up ladders, rigging up wiring in the half-empty offices with bare white walls that make up the advocate's workspace. A paper sign on the door marked the Office of the Child Advocate. Ryan began his five-year position on Oct. 14, and he didn't waste time. That day, he initiated an investigation of the Arthur Brisbane Child Treatment Center, a state psychiatric hospital in Farmingdale, to make sure that children were receiving adequate care.
On Oct. 15, he began looking into overcrowding at juvenile detention centers in Camden, Atlantic, Essex and Union counties. The probe was spurred when 17-year-old Edward Sinclair hanged himself in the Union County facility despite 24-hour surveillance. “I worry that children are being warehoused at institutions, not cared for,” he said. “More than anything, kids need love.”
The government has a responsibility to step in when parents cannot provide love and nurturance; the role of the Child Advocate is to make sure that this intervention is done correctly. “Drugs, adult selfishness and violence are formidable obstacles that we have to overcome,” he said.
The state Legislature created the Office of the Child Advocate after several children died while in the child-welfare system. Its powers are considerable. The office can subpoena, sue state government, hold public hearings, investigate agencies and demand corrective action from the government.
The advocate oversees all of the agencies that deal with children afflicted by abuse or neglect: the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, and KidCare, which provides health insurance to youngsters. Each year, 50,000 children go through the child welfare system, and each needs the system to work, he said.
“We don't want to be a ‘gotcha squad,’ ” Ryan explained. “We want this system to be safer for kids.”
The Post-It notes and index cards that track children in need will finally give way to a statewide data tracking system in December 2004, Ryan said. Even though the federal government required and even helped fund such a system, the state had stalled for years, cutting it from the budget.
It can take between 7 and 10 years to turn a troubled system around, he said. While no state has a perfect child welfare system, many systems fare better than the Garden State, including Pittsburgh, Illinois and New York City.
“Good Lord, I think Alabama does it better,” he said.
Caring for kids
Unable to speak “a lick of English,” the young woman from Togo had ended up in Covenant House, escorted by police officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Repeatedly raped by the son of the king, she escaped to Italy and then somehow ended up on the streets of New York. She could have easily fallen prey to a pimp or the temptations of drugs, Ryan said. But instead, the woman learned to speak English and became a nurse. Now married and a mother, she is pursuing her master's degree. It's cases like those that keep Ryan going, despite the stresses.
After receiving his law degree from the Georgetown Law Center, Ryan began a legal aid program for Covenant House in New York City, which aids runaways and homeless youths. He aided runaways and “throwaways,” children and teens who are rejected by their families. He saw children prostituting themselves for drug money, or living in train tunnels. Some charges succeeded, going on to college. Others succumbed to the dangers and temptations of the streets.
“There were kids I buried, kids I watched collapse in the face of drugs,” he said.
After five years in the city, he crossed the Hudson to Covenant House's New Jersey facilities. He began working in advocacy, fighting a 1997 federal juvenile crime bill that would have incarcerated truants, runaways and curfew-violators with adult criminals. Sister Mary Rose McGeady, the former head of Covenant House, fought alongside him. “She could have run the Teamsters Union, she was so tough,” Ryan remembered.
He co-wrote the Homeless Youth Act, signed into law by Gov. Christie Whitman in 1999. The act allocated $1.5 million for the creation of new beds in homeless shelters, and allowed children in crisis access to these beds, while the agency tried to contact their parents or DYFS. Previously, children could not stay in a shelter without the permission of their parents or a judge, he said.
He worked on the Family Care Act of 2000, which extended health insurance coverage to teens aging out of the foster care system, giving them coverage to age 21. Ryan also oversaw Covenant House's job-training program that helped teens get jobs in malls and resorts, hooked them up with apartments, and, on a good day, reconnected them with their families.
Last year, he became chief of staff for the state Department of Human Services, and served as an advisor to the governor on children's issues. He worked on the state's settlement of a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit group Children's Rights, which charged that the state's child welfare system is poorly managed, overburdened and underfunded.
“You preserve our tomorrow,” he said of his work. “You take the most fragile and most vulnerable among us, and protect them and hold them as sacred. It's morally the most decent thing to do.”
But perhaps it's no surprise that Ryan chose a career helping children in need. Public service runs in the blood of the Ryans, who have deep roots in South Amboy. Born on an Air Force base in Ohio, Kevin Ryan came to South Amboy when he was a year old, while his mother, Eileen, waited for the return of his father, Jim, from the Vietnam War. “South Amboy is as down-to-earth and wonderfully giving as any group of people I've ever met,” said Ryan, who moved to Fair Haven two years ago with his wife and five children.
Kevin Ryan's father, a native of South Amboy, has volunteered with the South Amboy First Aid Squad for 47 years, leaving home in the middle of the night to help victims of heart attacks and car accidents. Eileen Ryan also volunteered for a time, before going on to become a Board of Education member. Kevin Ryan remembers how she hit the streets to collect money for a neighbor whose child had been killed by a car.
Half of the Ryan family's six sons volunteered with the squad, although Kevin Ryan wasn't among them. Inevitably, when dinner was over and family members were clearing the table, a call would come in, with half the family bolting for the door to rescue someone, Kevin Ryan said with a grin.
As Catholics, the Ryan brothers grew up hearing the message of the Gospel, and served as altar boys at St. Mary's Church. His parents taught by example the importance of helping others, he said. It evidently rubbed off, as many of the brothers chose careers in public service. His brothers include a police detective, a member of the FBI, a paramedic, a teacher and a child welfare worker, who has since left to go to graduate school.
When Kevin Ryan thinks of his upbringing, he remembers the time he rode along with his father in the ambulance, transporting an AIDS patient. Jim Ryan took off his glove to hold the man's hand, his son said.
“While it may seem sentimental, in many ways I'm
trying to grow into the man my father is,” Ryan said.
By Jennifer Micale
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