Archive for February, 2013


Feb 27 2013

Understanding and Shaping Public Opinion

by at 11:24 am

By Julie Ryan (Georgetown Public Policy Review)

In order to advance a public policy agenda, legislators need to understand the environment in which they find themselves. They are beholden to their constituents’ opinions, and mobilizing support for an expensive but important program for at-risk youth can be very difficult. In a breakout focusing on this issue, moderator Jann Jackson, a senior associate of policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, hosted a panel of experts including Patrick Bresette, the director of programs at Public Works; Jonathan Voss, a senior analyst at Lake Research Partners; and Yndia Lorick-Wilmot, Ph.D. a senior associate at the FrameWorks Institute. Drawing on their own research as well as descriptive statistics, panelists said convincing the public to support funding for at-risk youth programs is an uphill battle, but it is possible.

“Most people don’t think about government at all; they’re busy going about their lives…but it doesn’t stop people from having opinions about the government,” Bresette said. He argued that in our hyper-consumerist culture, people have come to see government as a vending machine. In other words, Americans are putting their money into the government and wondering what benefits they are getting out of the system.

In addition to this consumerist view, many Americans seem to have an intrinsic distrust of government. Lorick-Wilmot characterized public opinion as a swamp of developmental outcomes and resilience. This swamp, she argued, is filled with cultural ideologies and values deeply entrenched in public opinion, making them very hard to change.

“When we put our messaging out there into the swamp and they’re not framed effectively and strategically, they get eaten up in the swamp,” Lorick-Wilmot said. “Policy opinions are frame dependent…Tested values as an element have been shown to be really effective as swamp inoculators. Values really remind people of what’s at stake and why this issue’s important.”

In her research, Lorick-Wilmot found that tapping into ingenuity as a value had the greatest effect on public support for child abuse policy reform.

“People can think, ‘ok, I can be a part of this solution.’ It’s about this interdependence, this connection,” Lorick-Wilmot said.

Bresette agreed that interdependence, working together, and reinforcing the idea that everyone has a role to play in “our government” were all effective strategies for pulling Americans away from their cynical beliefs about government as a vending machine.

“More of that kind of ownership conversation is something that I think is subtle but important,” he said. “Help broaden the circle of concern – at some core on a spiritual level, we have to help people see their responsibility in each other.”

Jackson agreed, saying, “If America’s really going to meets its challenges, we need to start nourishing its innate capacity for empathy.”

In addition to reaching Americans’ empathy, Voss argued it is also effective to frame these issues as a threat to American exceptionalism. Two-thirds of American voters (regardless of party affiliation) believe American children are falling behind other countries.

“When it’s put in a patriotic kind of ‘we need to restore our leadership in this area,’ people are more likely to get on board,” Voss said. “This aspirational component runs deep in American culture and can be tapped into.”


Julie Ryan is an Associate Copy Editor for the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

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Feb 25 2013

Inside the Child Welfare System: Child and Family Perspectives

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By Lauren Barth (Georgetown Public Policy Review)

“Nothing about me without me.”  It’s a phrase we’ve all heard before, and most of us accept inclusion as an important value for any institution, especially those that make policies or deliver services affecting human lives.  But how often is true inclusion practiced?  And how can those of us working in human services do better?

The presenters on the LEAD Conference Family Plenary panel all had personal experience with the child welfare system.  Eric Ludlow of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration spent time in foster care in Tennessee, and Josh Grubb of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative is a college junior preparing to transition out.  Sandra Killet of the Child Welfare Organizing Project works as an advocate for parents who have had a child placed in foster care in New York.

Each panelist stressed the importance of substantive child and family participation at both the individual and organizational level.  Institutions should strive to include former clients as board members and staff, and clients recruited to participate in decision making panels should be properly prepared in advance to avoid tokenization.  Grubb advocated youth advisory boards as a vehicle to share youth voices while fostering a sense of agency among members.

At the individual level, Killet suggested encouraging families to bring a friend or peer advocate to planning conferences to boost confidence in what is often an intimidating environment.  Social, economic, and cultural divides compound power differentials between clients and service agencies that make it difficult for families and children to play an active role in planning.

Grubb also emphasized the importance of family assistance.  “Once youth enter care, there is a divide between what happens to youth and what happens to family.”  On a personal level, he wished his mother had received more help and had been more involved in the process of planning his future.  He believed that improved communication between parent caseworkers, child caseworkers, and families themselves would produce better outcomes across the board.


Lauren Barth is the Senior Marketing Director of Policy Forums for the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

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Feb 11 2013

Reforming Juvenile Justice in the Wake of Fiscal Stress and Newtown

by at 10:50 am

By Julie Ryan (Georgetown Public Policy Review)

In a breakout session moderated by Liz Ryan, the President & CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, panelists Indivar Dutta-Gupta, a policy advisor for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Mike Thompson, the director of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments; and Toni Walker, a Connecticut State Representative from New Haven, all agreed that kids are a bipartisan issue. However, despite widespread support for improving the lives of at-risk youth, panelists agreed that budget cuts and harsh disciplinary measures currently pose very real threats to juvenile justice and the general well-being of American children.

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, how do policymakers frame issues of juvenile justice? This tragedy has sparked heated national conversations about mental health, school safety, and gun control, all of which have high relevance to the juvenile justice field.

“How do you make sure that the best possible things come out of the momentum on those particular issues? If these things are going to happen, how do we do that constructively?” Thompson asked.

Representative Walker said the Newtown shooting roused a bipartisan mission in the legislature to protect children absolutely, but she added it was important not to rush to conclusions or have knee-jerk reactions. She mentioned she is on a task force for gun control and receives an average of 300 emails per day from NRA members.

“This conversation must be beneficial,” Representative Walker said. “Are we legislating a tragedy or are we legislating for the protection of our state?”

Thompson agreed, saying, “You have to take this slow. If you take some absolutist positions right at the outset, I think you make yourself irrelevant…It makes it more difficult to do something constructive down the road.”

Outside of this violent tragedy, all panel members had some reason for optimism. They spoke of some recent improvements in the juvenile justice system, saying the system has made significant changes during their careers.

“When I came into the juvenile justice field …it was very negative, very punitive,” Ms. Ryan said. “Almost every single state passed a law trying to convict juveniles as adults.

Yet in the past decade, reforms in the juvenile justice system have occurred all over the country from both Democratic and Republican policymakers.

“The whole system has been turned inside out; [it’s] dramatically smaller than it used to be,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen a dramatic decline in juveniles in correctional facilities between 2003 and 2010, cutting in half the number in secure confinement.”

Despite these improvements, panelists agreed there were many serious issues facing the juvenile justice system. Arrest rates among juveniles have not plummeted. School discipline is also proving to be severe, pushing kids out of school. Thompson cited one bipartisan study out of Texas that followed 900,000 students and found 60 percent of students experienced suspension or expulsion at least once between seventh and 12th grade.  This disciplinary action, he argued, dramatically increased these students’ likelihood of dropping out of school and entering the juvenile justice system.

The juvenile justice system also faces monetary problems; Dutta-Gupta spoke of significant budgetary pressures on programs for at-risk and vulnerable youth.

“There’s a growing expectation that programs for children in particular should be cost-effective,” Dutta-Gupta said. “Emphasize that we are already bearing significant cost for not taking action. When people realize there is a cost for not acting, they’re much more willing to come to the table sometimes.”

Dutta-Gupta argued programs for at-risk youth should be geared not only to the youngest children but also to older youths who tend to get left behind.

“There’s growing evidence that it’s literally never too late to help a child,” Dutta-Gupta said. “It’s probably always too soon to stop.”


Julie Ryan is an Associate Copy Editor for the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

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Feb 11 2013

The Policy and Practice of Early Childhood Development

by at 10:46 am

By Lauren Barth (Georgetown Public Policy Review)

We know how to raise happy, healthy children.  This message was at the core of both panel discussions on early childhood innovative practices at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute LEAD Conference.  The science of early childhood development is clear, but implementation remains a challenge.

The panels brought together seven experts from a variety of fields.  The first discussion centered on healthy development and featured moderator Miriam Calderon of the Administration for Children & Families, Health & Human Services; Danielle Ewen of the District of Columbia Public Schools; Matthew Melmed of Zero to Three; and David Olds of the Prevention Research Center for Family and Child Health at the University of Colorado.  The second discussion addressed techniques for protecting children at risk and included Miriam Calderon, Judge Cindy Lederman of the 11th Judicial Circuit in Florida, Kirsten Kainz of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and David Willis of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Despite the diversity of their professional backgrounds, all panelists perceived a yawning gap between theory and practice in services for young children and their families – a serious problem considering the profound effect the first one thousand days of life have on cognitive and socio-emotional development.  Experiences during this formative period lay the foundation for future growth and learning, and studies have shown the effects of these experiences persist into adulthood.   Consider the following facts presented by panelists:

  • Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to heart disease, early death, diabetes, and underemployment (Willis)
  • The brain of a three year old brain is twice as active as that of an adult (Willis)
  • Children that enter school in the bottom quartile typically stay in the bottom quartile for the remainder of their academic careers (Willis)
  • Children who receive high quality early education are less likely to suffer from depression, more likely enroll in college, more likely to complete high school, four times more likely to graduate from college, and more likely to obtain consistent employment as adults (Kainz)

These data make a strong case for reinforcing early childhood systems of care, especially considering that Early Head Start reaches less than 4% of children eligible and childcare subsidies reach only 16% (Olds).  And as Melmed pointed out, studies of maternal and early childhood interventions have identified as much as 86% return on investment.

We know how to improve outcomes for at risk children, and we know that the best interventions start early.  The challenge now is implementation.  Services and communities need to come together around child centered systems of care that leverage funds as effectively as possible.  We also need to invest more.  Kainz quoted Steve Barnett of the National Institute of Education Research when she said “Once we stop thinking of preschool as a charity and start thinking about it as an investment in everyone’s future, we might actually do what is necessary to meaningfully improve the education of young children.”

When researchers, administrators, judges, and nonprofit leaders agree on the importance of beginning evidence based interventions earlier in life, it’s time to listen.  Smart, targeted investment America’s youngest and most vulnerable children could transform the American education system and workforce from the bottom up.


Lauren Barth is the Senior Marketing Director of Policy Forums at the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

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