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Citizens for Missouri's Children, a statewide advocacy group, closes its doors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2010 - The only statewide advocacy group for children lost its voice on Thursday. In a sobering statement, greeted by shock and disbelief by its small staff, Citizens for Missouri's Children, founded in 1984, announced that it was closing its doors, saying it no longer was able to find funding for its many initiatives.

The shutdown will leave a gaping hole in the movement to make sure kids are kept out of harm's way through good health care and early screening, literacy skills, access to good child care and protection from abuse and other problems.

"We'd been struggling with finances for quite some time," said F. Scott Gee, the group's executive director. "There's an economic downturn, and it has impacted our ability to operate. We're driven by foundation funding, and it has taken a large hit. We've tried to downsize, and we've been watching our finances as closely as we can, but we just couldn't make it."

The group had only four high-energy staff members, all of whom "wore many hats," Gee said. "Everybody had to do more than just the job they were hired to do."

Because of its advocacy work, the group could never tap into funding from United Way. About four years ago, the group had a budget of about $800,000, Gee said. Last year's budget was in the $450,000 range. This year, he said the group had expected to survive on about $300,000. He said the group had applied for a couple of grants, but that a cash flow problem made it impossible for the group to survive in the short term.

He said the group would use money it has received and hadn't spent to cover its debts. He had no immediate information on how many creditors are owed money.

Two immediate consequences of the shutdown will be the end of the group's highly regarded KIDS COUNT in Missouri Data Book. The group also announced that the shutdown will mean the cancellation of its 2010 Children's Summit, set for June 30 in Jefferson City.

The KIDS COUNT in Missouri Data Book was a collaborative project of CMC and more than 30 public and private organizations from around the state. The information offered data on the status of children in all 114 Missouri counties and the city of St. Louis. It tracks 29 data indicators of child well-being, including 10 primary outcome measures. In the 2009 report, indicators were grouped into five categories: economic security, educational success, child health and mental health, child protection and safety and adolescent success.

The KIDS COUNT project is done through a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which contracts with a single organization in each state to compile and analyze data about child well-being in each state.

Jann Jackson, a Casey senior fellow for policy reform advocacy, said the organization would decide later next month what group would receive the contract.

"Scott (Gee) said to me that we have to find a new home for the project," Jackson said, adding that one possible choice might be the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis at University of Missouri at St. Louis. That program might be a logical choice because it already works with Gee on Missouri's data, but Jackson didn't rule out other potential choices. She stressed that no decision had been made.

She added that many child advocacy groups were facing economic difficulties, but said CMC was the only one she knew that had shut down.

"We were all very saddened because kids really need a voice. The recession is affecting everybody. Foundations have lost money, and organizations are having a difficult time."

In spite of shutting down, the organization worked hard to get bills through the state Legislature -- and succeeded in helping pass two laws this year. One, introduced by Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, and included in HB2290, would change income eligibility rules to give poor parents more help with child care. A needy family of three, for example, is eligible for the subsidy if its income falls below 127 percent of the federal poverty level, in the $23,000 range. The new law would allow some families to receive reduced subsidies on a sliding scale when their incomes exceed the guidelines. There is no guarantee, though, that the bill will get funding because of budget cuts.

The second bill, introduced by Rep. Bob Nance, R-Excelsior Springs, and included in SB583, requires the Department of Social Services to do more outreach to enroll eligible children in SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Parents or guardians of children receiving free lunches will be required to indicate whether their children have health insurance. School districts would be required to tell parents of the uninsured that their children may qualify for health insurance coverage under SCHIP.

Despite those successes, the organization couldn't continue. 

"We have not reached this decision lightly," said Sherry Tucker, president of the group's board of directors. "Our board and staff explored a number of options to keep all or some of CMC's programs running. However, our lack of current and long-term funding make it impossible to continue to provide these programs in a meaningful way."

Gee added: "We sincerely appreciate those individuals and organizations that have supported our efforts through the years. Without their support, the rights and well-being of Missouri's children would have been overlooked."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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