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Power--At Last : Family: After years of activism, the Children's Defense Fund is cautiously celebrating its new clout, thanks to its political and personal ties throughout the Clinton Administration.


WASHINGTON — A blizzard was almost upon the city, but inside the Hilton, it was warm and fuzzy. More than 2,500 children's advocates were anticipating the opening session of the largest ever Children's Defense Fund convention, when unexpectedly, President Bill Clinton took the podium. By the time he finished, some of them were openly weeping grateful tears.

What they heard was not the rhetoric of moral support, but official government policies and proposals for their own heartfelt agenda. What they saw was a President of the United States literally embracing--with just the briefest nod to the cameras--CDF's adored, no-nonsense founder Marian Wright Edelman under the organization's logo: "Dear Lord, Be Good to Me, the Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small."

Susan Van Landingham, a Head Start worker from Martinez, Calif., wiped away tears with unsteady hands. "It was so exciting. I've been in the child-care field for 15 years. This was one of the first times I've ever felt validated," she said.

After 20 years, CDF's ship has come in.

Last fall's election catapulted former CDF board chair Hillary Rodham Clinton into the White House and the powerful chairmanship of its Health Care Task Force; another former board member, Donna Shalala, ascended to secretary of Health and Human Services; a third former board member, New York lawyer Susan Thomases, became a consultant, first in the campaign, then in the West Wing. A former summer intern, Susan Blumenthal, is a consultant to the Health Care Task Force.

Already, President Clinton has enacted programs proposed by the Children's Defense Fund, and promised funds for other CDF interests including immunization, Head Start and family preservation. (See accompanying story.)

As U.S. News & World Report editor David Gergen told the conference participants last month: "People now look to you as a voice of leadership. They want to know what you have to say."

To be sure, there are those who have heard enough already.

Critics see CDF, which is primarily a lobbying and public education organization, as an expensive throwback to unworkable ideas from the '60s. They fear precisely what Shalala and Edelman promised the delegates in March, that immunization is a "driving wedge" to further social initiatives--and further spending and government involvement.

The undisputed leader in the children's movement, The Children's Defense Fund evolved from the Southern civil-rights movement and anti-poverty programs of the '60s. Edelman, a Yale Law School graduate and civil-rights lawyer, formed the tax-exempt charity in 1973 to ensure enforcement of laws protecting poor children and minorities.

For now, children's advocates, led by the Children's Defense Fund, are celebrating their new clout--cautiously. Some fear so much support will make their colleagues complacent and overdependent on the federal government. Said Eve Brooks, president of the National Assn. of Child Advocates, "There's a danger to the extent people breathe a sigh of relief and say, 'We don't have to do it. The Clintons are taking care of it. Marian's got it under control.' "

In addition, Brooks observed the job of advocacy can become quite complex with friends in office--and no one has ever been "quite as close to the center of power as we're seeing with CDF right now."

One of the group's first staff lawyers was Hillary Rodham, who participated in a project to find out why 2 million U.S. children were not in school. The activists knocked on doors in selected census tracts across the country and concluded many public schools were excluding children who either were not Anglos, did not speak English, were too poor to pay for books or needed medical help. The group's subsequent detailed report (now a standard CDF strategy) led to a federal law guaranteeing education for disabled children as well as lawsuits challenging some schools' practices.

But soon after, according to CDF staff counsel James D. Weill, "The courts got so bad on poor people's issues, that we basically gave up litigating." Moreover, he said, it became clear that "airtight arguments and compelling numbers didn't do it."

During the Reagan years, $10 billion was cut from children's programs, just at the time when the problems of single-parent and dual-income families were becoming more apparent. Children's advocates "pulled together, huddling in the cold," Weill said. They regrouped, taught themselves budget analysis, adjusted their strategies, and began to look at the long haul.

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