A Phone Call Could Save a Bill That Could Save Children

You'd think that a bill protecting children from abusers would have no trouble becoming law. Especially one that comes with a relatively small price tag.

Children are our most precious resource . . . right?

Sure, if you're a politician running for office. But if you happen to be a Sacramento bureaucrat faced with administering yet another program, children might just be another annoying item in the stack of papers in your "in" basket.

Last week, I spent a good deal of time trying to track down a "kids' bill," one of the 1,200 or so pieces of legislation that await the governor's signature--or his veto.

As I dialed this number and that, Elizabeth Phillips was never far from my thoughts. Elizabeth, who is 10, lives with her mother, father and two brothers in the Northern California suburb of Moraga.

Her mother, Mary Beth, is one of the people responsible for the bill I was interested in, AB 2053, which would create Trustline, a voluntary registry for baby-sitters. If the governor signs the bill, parents will be able to use the registry to check whether a care-giver has a criminal past, or even a past that includes a "substantiated" charge of child abuse, even if the case was never prosecuted. The background checks would cost around $85.

In July, I wrote about Elizabeth, permanently blinded as an infant after a neighbor's nanny shook her, and of how Mary Beth responded with a crusade to spare other children such horrors.

Reader response was surprisingly high. Day care isn't generally considered a sexy, hot-button issue like, say, immigration or abortion. But it's of paramount importance to the working parents of young kids. For many of them, in fact, it is the issue.

Parents who called me were desperate: How could they get in touch with the Trustline registry?

Back in July, Trustline seemed a shoo-in. The legislation was passed by both houses with little dissent. All it would take for the registry to become reality would be the stroke of Pete Wilson's pen.

But a couple of weeks ago, Mary Beth Phillips began hearing rumblings that something was wrong, that some bureaucrats were unhappy with language in the bill, that they might recommend the governor veto the bill so the language could be fixed.

That's when I started calling around, just to see what was up. I made several phone calls--to people in the Department of Social Services, to people in the governor's office, etc. etc. No one could tell me anything. When I called the governor's office, in fact, I was told by a secretary that the spokesman I was looking for probably couldn't help me, as he dealt with "big things, like immigration."

"Yeah, sweetheart," I wanted to say, "tell that to Elizabeth Phillips."

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No one could give any details about what the problem with the bill might be. Mary Beth Phillips heard the Department of Social Services had raised objections. No, said someone, it was the Department of Finance.

People I reached batted around phrases like "it has to be revenue-neutral" and "concerns over funding" and "this is something the governor has supported in the past." But no one would say, "Yes, Pete Wilson is going to sign AB 2053."

Last week, Phillips was pretty sure the glitch had to do with the portion of the bill that is aimed at screening the baby-sitters of poor people--people whose child care is paid for with government dollars, while they, presumably, work or train for jobs so they can get off welfare. The government would shoulder the cost of those background checks, because, after all, why should the taxpayers pay good money for child care to people with criminal or child abuse backgrounds?

Some of the money would come from the federal government; some of it from the state. Phillips wondered if officials were trying to protect the state's coffers with more iron-clad language.

On Monday, she met with some of Sacramento's finest bureaucrats to plead her case: We can take care of any picky language concerns with a clean-up bill introduced next January , she told them. Please don't forget: this is a child-abuse prevention bill. We need it now!

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That evening, Phillips said her assumption about what caused the glitch was wrong. Turns out, she discovered at the meeting, the Department of Social Services, which would oversee Trustline, would rather have the state Department of Justice be in charge. But the Department of Justice doesn't want it. So there will be high-level interdepartmental consultations.

We will know in less than a week--by the governor's Monday deadline--whether kids in California will have the protections that Trustline could afford them.

Monday's meeting took place in a big conference room at the Department of Social Services. Eleven people sat around a huge conference table. Behind them, the walls were plastered with posters--15 or 20 of them--all urging child abuse prevention. Everyone agreed that Trustline is a great idea.

"Everyone wants it," said Phillips. "But nobody wants it in their department."

So what can you do to prevent this bill from falling victim, as Phillips puts it, "to the red tape and double-talk of state agencies?"

You can give Gov. Wilson a call. If you think Trustline is a good way to protect children from known criminals and child abusers, urge him to sign the Trustline bill, AB 2053. His number, by the way, is 916-445-0658.

Elizabeth Phillips' mother would appreciate it.

Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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