Foundation for children adopts city

September 19, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's poverty level is high. The schools are struggling. The juvenile justice system is overwhelmed. That makes this a perfect location for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

With assets of more than $1 billion, the Annie E. Casey Foundation is the largest philanthropy in the country dedicated exclusively to disadvantaged children. And today, it officially opens its headquarters in Baltimore, in a renovated, light-filled building on Mount Vernon Place.

The foundation left behind affluent Greenwich, Conn., for a city weighed down by issues of poverty and neglect.

"This is a location that seemed to make more sense for our work," said Douglas Nelson, the foundation's executive director.

Greenwich was beautiful and comfortable, Mr. Nelson said. But a couple of years ago, the staff looked around its headquarters and wondered if it was in the right place. "We asked ourselves, 'Is this a place that's relevant to the work we were doing?' " Mr. Nelson said. "We thought not."

After investigating other East Coast cities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation settled on Baltimore. Of about 50 employees, Mr. Nelson said proudly, 40 gave up their homes in Connecticut to move here.

The foundation brings the city jobs, the prestige of its national reputation and the opportunity for Baltimore to serve as an urban laboratory for the problems that the fund likes to wrestle with.

"They're one of the focal points in the country for thinking about issues relating to cities and poor people," said Robert C. Embry Jr., head of the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation. "So they'll be a great source of ideas and resources in the community. This is a great addition."

"The fact they were willing to move from Greenwich, Conn., to an urban area that has an inadequate tax system to deal with education and a middle class that is moving to the suburbs says a lot about them," said Susan Leviton, who heads Advocates for Children and Youth.

The Casey Foundation, which plans to make about $67 million in grants this year, ranks in the top 20 of all national foundations and outsizes Baltimore's other large philanthropic funds.

Even before moving here, the Casey Foundation was important to local advocates for children. Since 1990, Mr. Nelson said, the Casey foundation has made almost $10 million in grants to Baltimore and Maryland -- programs ranging from a Baltimore immunization program to a revamping of foster care to a University of Maryland journalism center focused on reporting of children's issues.

The foundation doesn't hand money to poor children. Instead, it looks at programs that work with children -- a foster care system, a detention system, a welfare plan -- and tries to redesign them so they reach more children more effectively, while saving money.

Established in 1948 by Jim Casey, one of the founders of United Parcel Service, and his siblings, the Annie E. Casey Foundation was named in honor of their mother.

Mr. Nelson, 46, joined the foundation in 1990. A former University of Wisconsin professor of social history, he also served as Wisconsin's director of aging and as assistant secretary for the state's Department of Health and Social Services.

Until the late 1980s, the Casey foundation ran a small, private foster-care program in New England. But then Mr. Casey died, and the bulk of his estate went to the foundation. Overnight, the group had assets of nearly $1 billion and had to decide how to use them.

"We realized we had, almost overnight, the largest philanthropy doing what we do," Mr. Nelson said. "If we spent that whole pot of money all at once and went out of business, it would run the New York City public school system for three months.

"A foundation like the Annie Casey Foundation will not delude itself into thinking it will make a difference for kids unless it works with much larger systems that work with kids."

In choosing its projects, Mr. Nelson said, the foundation looks for risk-taking local officials in locations "which we think will influence decision makers around the country."

One program that was redesigned with Casey Foundation funds was a juvenile detention center in Broward County, Fla. The building, built to house 109 youths, was holding more than 200 juveniles each night by 1989. Homeless kids and truants were tossed together with delinquents picked up for violent assaults or gun possession.

Fights among detainees and staff were common, said retired Florida Circuit Court Judge Frank Orlando. "We were paying $18,000 a week in overtime."

A class-action suit alleged crowding. The only solution offered was to build a bigger detention center.

Then the county approached the Casey Foundation.

Together, they devised a screening system, so that nonviolent youths could be detained at home while they awaited trial. They made sure youths at risk of escape were kept in detention. They opened a shelter for homeless children. They started a daytime program, run by the Boys' and Girls' Clubs, to work with kids in trouble.

The result, Judge Orlando said, is that the center now holds an average of 70 youths a night. Over three years, only 2 percent of the youths in the program have failed to appear in court, Judge Orlando said.

"It's a less harmful system, with less expense to the taxpayer," Mr. Nelson said.

The Casey Foundation since has made grants to five cities to create similar juvenile detention programs.

Ms. Leviton said the Casey Foundation is an example of an effective foundation with a clear focus.

"A long time ago, it was thought that foundations did charity," she said.

"You had a poor kid and you bought him mittens and a pair of shoes. Now, what's exciting is that foundations say their mission is to look at roots of problems."

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