Two months after the Maryland General Assembly voted to abolish a state office coordinating children's welfare issues, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that he is creating a nearly identical agency to replace it.
The existing Office for Children, Youth and Families is set to close June 30, but Ehrlich issued an executive order establishing a new Office for Children to serve as an umbrella office to coordinate child and family-oriented services from various Cabinet-level agencies.
It will also oversee the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, which has been critical of Ehrlich's administration by issuing a series of harsh reports highlighting instances of abuse and violence in the state's juvenile detention centers.
Ehrlich said the new office will try to "save the saveless" children and fulfill a campaign promise to fix chronic problems in the juvenile justice system.
"Our job is to make sure they have the ability to be successful in life -- that's job one," Ehrlich (R) said.
Ehrlich's move was applauded by his Cabinet officials and by youth advocates during a news conference at a Baltimore school. But some Democratic lawmakers who fought Ehrlich during the recent legislative session over how to address the youth programs said they oppose his approach.
"The governor has shown time and time again that he's interested in his own personal power rather than what's good for the state of Maryland, and that's why he has difficulty compromising with the legislature," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery).
Ralph B. Thomas, who heads the independent monitor's office, said he was pleased his agency survived the reorganization but disheartened that the governor had not consulted him.
"It created unnecessary stress on myself and my staff, not being included in discussions," Thomas said. "We wish we would've had some inkling as to plans."
Alan Friedman, a senior policy adviser to Ehrlich and a chief architect of the new Office for Children, said he has arranged a bipartisan group of lawmakers to coordinate with the governor's office.
"The governor fully wants the legislature as a partner to this," Friedman said. "Obviously, significant success in this field is going to rely on the legislature's cooperation."
State officials said they hope the office will collaborate more closely with other state agencies than the old one did. As part of his announcement, Ehrlich named a new executive director, Arlene Lee, replacing current Special Secretary M. Teresa Garland, a close friend of first lady Kendel Ehrlich's.
"I'm very excited about the opportunity and continually aware of the many challenges but looking forward to working with all of my partners in the community," said Lee, who since 2002 has been director of the D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America's Center for Children of Prisoners.
Jann Jackson, executive director of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth, said she is pleased with the new office and Lee's appointment.
"Appointing Arlene is sending a clear signal," Jackson said. "Arlene is not a political appointee. She is known by the local management board of directors. Advocates are used to working with her."
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore), who appeared with Ehrlich at the news conference, said he will support the governor's proposal and urged lawmakers to join him, saying that children's issues are above politics.
"Until the detractors come up with a system that's better than this one, we're going to work very hard," McFadden said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he believes that the legislature may come to the table with the administration. He did not discuss budgetary details because he has yet to be briefed by the governor.