From two hats to one

January 17, 1995

When Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening named UMAB Prof. Linda Thompson to be secretary for children, youth and families, one of the busiest people in state government settled for wearing only one hat. Children, youth and families secretary since 1989, Nancy S. Grasmick added the duties of state superintendent of schools in 1991. It proved a heavy burden, but Dr. Grasmick combined those jobs with remarkable effect.

One reason government-funded social programs have been less effective than they should be is the fragmentation of these services. Too often, the people running health programs never talk to foster care workers, or special education programs have no link to mental health services that may be dealing with the very same children. Dr. Grasmick's two roles have enabled her to demonstrate the importance of breaking down bureaucratic barriers. The reforms that have been undertaken in the past few years will help to continue that legacy.

Amid the barbed criticism these days of anything remotely associated with a "welfare state," it may be unfashionable to sing the praises of government successes. But Maryland taxpayers need to know that with vision, leadership and sheer determination, tax dollars can go a long way toward improving the lives of children and their families.

So far, these reform efforts have enabled the state to return 239 children from expensive residential programs in other states. Not only were children placed in facilities closer to their relatives, but the state was able to redirect $8 million to programs located within the state -- providing more jobs for Marylanders and keeping tax dollars in the local economy.

A stronger emphasis on efforts to help families solve problems before they reach the crisis stage has also paid off. More than 1,100 children who would otherwise have been placed in foster care have instead remained with their own families, at great savings to taxpayers and less disruption in their own lives.

On two other fronts, the numbers are also headed in the right direction. Between 1991 and 1992, Maryland's pregnancy rate for girls ages 15 to 17 declined 6 percent, compared to only 2 percent nationally. Maryland's infant mortality rate declined to 9.6 in 1990, from 14.1 in 1980.

There are challenges ahead. As the nation's only top schools officer who also shared responsibility for programs encompassing the whole range of family services, Dr. Grasmick has provided an invaluable demonstration that effective public schools cannot overlook the vital connections between what happens in the classroom and in the rest of a child's day -- and between the earliest years of a child's life and his or her performance once the child enters the schoolhouse door.

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