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Persuasive powers for children at risk

One of the worthy enterprises that survived the tidal wave of emergency legislation engulfing Congress after Sept. 11 was a measure, under the unlikely patronage of House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, to create a family court division to deal with the District of Columbia's woefully inadequate child welfare system. Its chief sponsor is better known for nonhumanitarian legislative activity.

DeLay recently demonstrated his powers of persuasion in the debate over the airport security bill, which passed the House after a strenuous lobbying effort by the White House _ even though President Bush had once indicated neutrality in the fight between Republicans and Democrats over federalizing baggage screening. Eighty-two percent of the public favored a federal takeover, but DeLay and House Majority Leader Dick Armey made the crass argument that they would be creating 28,000 new union-enrolled Democratic voters, and Bush helped wrestle a victory out of the House that could haunt all of them. Bush, like so many others, found it hard to say no to DeLay.

DeLay's support of District juvenile court reform baffles some people, who question his motives and his credentials as a champion of children for whom, in poet Langston Hughes' phrase, "life ain't been no crystal stair." But DeLay's wife is a child welfare advocate, and the DeLays have taken troubled teens into their home as their foster children.

DeLay was incensed by the atrocious death of 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond, a dimpled darling who was sent home for Christmas with her mentally retarded mother by a D.C. judge who held no hearing. The responsible adults let the child down every step of the way, yet no one ever apologized or was fired. DeLay held hearings, ripped into the agencies involved, vowed there would be no more Briannas.

The Superior Court judges who supervise juvenile justice _ cases are rotated among 59 of them _ took vehement exception to DeLay's proposal for a juvenile court with 12 to 15 judges who would concentrate on children.

DeLay accused them to their faces of putting their careers and their turf ahead of the crying needs of abused and neglected children in the district. No one else talks to judges like that.

DeLay's bill, which had District Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton as co-sponsor, sailed through the House and picked up bipartisan support in the Senate. Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republican Michael DeWine of Ohio presented the House bill to a Senate panel. A recent Washington Post series by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz, which detailed the deaths of 229 children in the unsheltering arms of the district's child protection service, helped underline the urgency of the situation.

The bill calls for a five-year term for new family division judges. The terms were a hotly contested issue. The judges lobbied hard for three-year terms, arguing that the arduous and draining nature of the work led to burnout more than any other judicial assignment. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of a district oversight subcommittee, took the burnout talk to heart enough to float a suggestion for a 6 {-year term with an 18-month sabbatical. DeWine objected, saying that certain counties in Ohio, where DeWine was once a prosecutor, have six-year terms for their juvenile judges. "We never had trouble finding judges who wanted to devote themselves to child cases," he said. "And burnout was never an issue that I encountered."

Meanwhile, to give matters a shove, Landrieu, who is chairman of a district appropriations subcommittee, got a vote for a $24-million appropriation that is conditioned on court reform.

DeLay, who is not a notably patient man, issued a blistering statement on Thursday. "These senators can walk away from the needed court reforms. . . . But they should know that in reality they are abandoning the abused and neglected children in the District of Columbia who rely on the court to save their lives."

Still, the effect of the DeLay bombshell was to galvanize. Landrieu and Durbin did some negotiating and compromising, and the sabbatical idea was dropped. Now everyone is looking forward to the markup of the bill on Wednesday before Durbin's subcommittee.

Once again, Tom DeLay is prevailing. He gave his opponents a little taste of what was in store for them if they crossed him. The district's poor children could benefit, and the little martyr, Brianna Blackmond, can be remembered for something other than the way she died.

+ Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist. +

Universal Press Syndicate