Leadership Needed

The news of County Executive Ben Ewert's resignation provides a perfect example of why Prince William County's form of government needs to be changed to allow, per a change in state law, an elected county executive. Unfortunately, Mr. Ewert's departure continues a long trend in the county.

It seems that whenever a county executive, planning director, etc., is hired who has vision and energy, the Board of County Supervisors methodically breaks them down and spits them out. They either get the message and toe the line, or resign. I've seen it happen numerous times.

In Mr. Ewert's case, you had someone who articulated a vision for the county and went about trying to get it implemented--a a vision shared by the majority of county citizens. His effort to get sweeping changes to the county's Comprehensive Plan is a perfect example. The citizens had been asking for such a bold initiative for years. He acted on those desires.

Unfortunately, his biggest mistake was not to get prior clearance from the board before setting the public review process in motion. There is no doubt in my mind that if he had tried that approach, his land use plan would have never seen the light of day. Getting it out to the public and letting public momentum build forced the board to follow. It would be interesting to see how the public would vote on whether he should stay or go.

The Board of County Supervisors is playing the same game with our newly elected chairman, Sean Connaughton. Even before he was sworn in, remarks were made about his inexperience and how he needed a "breaking-in" period. Then there was talk about loyalty to the defeated chairman. In case the board hasn't noticed, the public voted for change, they owe their loyalty now to the citizens and their desires expressed through the election of Sean Connaughton.

As far as a replacement for Mr. Ewert, the Board of Supervisors need not look any further than its own ranks. Sitting among them is an expert, by his own accounting, in all aspects of county government and land use management. What an opportunity for Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville), a tripling in compensation and an opportunity to actually use his expertise for the common good. While not indigenous to the area, we won't hold that against him. Given his way of interacting with county staff, it would be interesting to see how long he could survive.



Beef Up Health Care

The surgeon general's report on mental illness was of particular interest to me as a teacher. Every day I meet with students of all kinds, and when it comes to the ones who are troubled, I wonder if we are doing everything we can to help them prepare for life outside of school. We do have a support system in place, with counselors and psychologists, and many students are prescribed medication to manage their moods. Obviously, our school system believes in the medical treatment of mental illness.

Recently, I began to wonder about the support of the teaching staff when it comes to mental health. Not too long ago, I heard about some former colleagues who began treatment for depression and other affective disorders. Some of these people are extremely fine educators, and I was surprised to hear that they would have such problems. As good as they were in the classroom, their personal burdens must have taken their toll.

Then I found out about a service many employers offer their workers to help them remain productive on the job while being treated by mental health care providers. Out of curiosity, I decided to look into the availability of this kind of service in our own county school system.

"Employee assistance professionals" are health care providers who are contracted by employers to assist workers in need of treatment for affective disorders. These programs are in wide use among larger employers, Fortune 500 companies and school systems such as Fairfax County's. The success of these programs is well documented.

Prince William County Public Schools offer something they refer to as an "EAP" program. It consists of a photocopied list of doctors and organizations that offer mental health care, and the offer of a one-time visit with a school psychologist who must volunteer to meet with the employee and assist in choosing a health care provider. Also, a waiver must be signed by the employee stating that this meeting is not to be considered a medical consultation.

This is very inadequate. First, very few people employed by the county schools know about this program, making it unlikely to be offered when needed. Second, running a finger down a list is no way to choose health care. Third, the staff member is entitled to a more structured program to ensure confidentiality. For this kind of service to be of value, a health care professional should be guiding it.

The need for this service is obvious to me. We occasionally hear of teachers being treated with indifference by supervisors who don't understand the need for mental health care. In situations where disciplinary actions are taking place, the school administration might prefer the humiliation of disciplinary action over allowing the employee to continue treatment without the added burden of punishment. To be sure, this would diminish the teacher's ability to return to the classroom and function at his or her best.

I urge the Prince William County Public Schools to implement an employee assistance professionals program by the start of the next school year. Each year, it is estimated that depression affects nearly 10 percent of all adult Americans.

The cost of this kind of benefit can be offset by a reduction in sick leave used and a reduction in health insurance costs thanks to more immediate intervention. In the classroom, we will see educators who meet the challenge of teaching eagerly and effectively. We should show as much concern for the health of our teachers as we do for our students. Anything we do that is good for teachers is bound to be good for students.



Endangering Children

My blood boils when I think of Brianna Blackmond, the 23-month-old D.C. child killed in her mother's care after being removed from her foster home. Don't these judges, guardian and other so-called professionals who presumably are dedicated to protecting children know they could be responsible for a child's death? Do they take their positions so lightly? They are supposed to be communicating with one another. They are supposed to keep current on the status of all aspects of the situation. They are supposed to be vigilant. They are supposed to be painstakingly careful and cautious. After all, a child's life can be at stake. This fact, I fear, is too often forgotten.

As a former foster parent, I can imagine the frustration, anger and grief being felt by Brianna's foster parents, who loved her so much they wanted to adopt her. I experienced these same feelings when I had three sisters returned to their mother even though conditions imposed by the court had not been met. The result? I got a phone call one day from the Alexandria police. The middle daughter, 16 years old, was missing and was believed to have fled the country with the mother's live-in boyfriend. The youngest daughter, now barely 17, is married and has a child. The eldest daughter, at 22, is still struggling to get her high school diploma. The girl who ran off ended up marrying the boyfriend, having a child with him, and is now divorcing him. She's 20.

With me, the three girls were attending school every day and the eldest two had part-time jobs. The eldest two were eager learners. All three were doing quite well. Why, then, were they yanked out of my home and sent back to live with their mom and her boyfriend? One reason was to save the social service department money. A despicable, shameful reason.

Another reason has to do with the oftentimes illogical and reckless craze to unite children with their natural families. This is a wonderful goal, but it certainly is not always in the child's best interest. And it is the responsibility of all the professionals involved in a case to make certain a return to the natural parents is the right thing to do.

Playing Russian roulette with a child's life is not a funny matter. It should not be taken lightly. Those who had a part in placing little Brianna in harm's way should be charged with a crime, or at the very least should be fired or replaced. And so that Brianna does not give up her life in vain, we can only hope that measures are taken everywhere, not just in the District but here in the suburbs as well, to ensure that there is no more carelessness where children are concerned.



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