Thursday, May 9, 1996
This may be an expensive savings plan

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Congratulations, fellow taxpayers. Some people you didn't even know have just saved you $50,000.

At a public hearing, some lawyers dumped an agency called ProKids to give the work to the public defender's office. It was simply business. No hard feelings. Just doing the fiscally responsible thing.

Then why, I had to wonder, were so many people crying.

I guess when the business is kids, some people just lose all objectivity.

These children, by the way, are not robbing convenience stores and shooting each other. At least I don't think so. At least not yet.

They're abused and neglected kids.

Kids like a girl I'll call Amy, who was a toddler the first time she was raped. When she was 5, the county put her in a foster home and she was assigned to ProKids.

Handholding, court time

A caseworker found a distant relative. Somebody nice. Somebody who might take on a "little wild thing." Her husband - we'll call him William - says the idea of a child was "something to think about." Especially a child with some notably special needs.

"Nobody had taught her any manners. Her little legs and face were filthy dirty," William says. ProKids arranged weekend visits. Lots of visits, lots of handholding, lots of advice.

A year after the child was taken from her biological parents, she went to live with William and his wife, who died when Amy was 9. "I thought, 'Oh God, there goes my daughter, too.' I never thought the courts would let me keep this child who was no kin to me."

The caseworker, the same one who found William in the first place, went to his wife's funeral and then to court. "She knew me really well by then. She knew I would take care of this child." The caseworker still checks in from time to time. It has been nearly 10 years since she first got a folder with Amy's name on it.

Excuse me for saying so, but this doesn't sound like a job at all. It sounds like a mission. Really not very businesslike and a rather impossibly high standard of care. Which the public defender's office has promised to duplicate.

The Public Defender's Commission fired a group of social workers, lawyers and volunteers who have served 8,500 children since 1981 because Public Defender Lou Strigari is cheaper. He never said better. Because he can't. We'll be lucky if he can do it as well.

As I read our very own newspaper every day, it appears to me that our children need more, rather than less, help. Children shooting children. Children using drugs. Children having children.

I have never once found myself saying, "Jehoshaphat. What this child needs is a good lawyer."

Based on the 1,800 kids a year now being served by ProKids, this board has saved you and me, the taxpayers, about 53 cents per week per kid.

No-frills childhood

In addition, ProKids runs a dedicated group of volunteers who donate thousands of hours. The group gets $150,000 from United Way and money from the Junior League, as well as other donations. They plow that right back into services for children. Frills, you might say. Like getting a volunteer to go to parent-teacher meetings for a child who has never had somebody show up at one before.

Like arranging for sisters, scattered all over the region, to get together at McDonald's once a month. Like finding scholarships. Like finding a prom dress. You know, things that are not entirely necessary.

But never mind. As Jeb Head, president of the volunteer board of ProKids, says, "That was yesterday. We support the public defender's office 100 percent. We'll work with them on the transition. We'll do whatever we can to help."

The ProKids board will be meeting this week and, typically, this weekend to figure out what's next. They are loathe to shut the doors, although about 85 percent of their money comes from the county.

Everybody hopes Lou Strigari and his public defenders can do the job for less.

Otherwise, this could be the most expensive $50,000 we've ever saved. And then we can all have a good cry.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.