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State committee names finalists for child advocate position

The decision to pass over Jametta Alston, Rhode Island's current child advocate, for another term has prompted allegations that Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 is placing politics before the welfare of the state's children.

A committee appointed to vet candidates for the position voted unanimously at the end of last month to recommend a list of four finalists, which did not include Alston, after Carcieri announced in January his desire to replace her with a new appointee.

Carcieri's announcement came after Alston clashed with his administration over a 2007 lawsuit in which she sued the state for alleged widespread abuse and neglect of children in its custody. The suit contended that insubstantial funding and mismanagement of the state's child welfare system have allowed children to be placed in abusive foster homes.

According to its Web site "The mission of the Office of the Child Advocate (in Rhode Island) is to protect the legal rights of children in State care and to promote policies and practices which ensure that children are safe; that children have permanent and stable families; and that children in out of home placements have their physical, mental, medical, educational, emotional and behavioral needs met."

State Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, criticized the committee's decision, calling it "politics as usual."

"It just doesn't sit right," he said.

But Amy Kempe, the governor's spokesperson, praised the "unparalleled quality" of the four finalists. "It's important to bring in an outside, fresh perspective" to the position, she said.

"Five years, I think, is a good amount of time" for one person to hold the post, she said.

But some legislators, including Metts, said that Alston's commitment to doing her job well may have wrongly cost her the position.

Alston, whose five-year term as the state's child advocate expires this month, "rightly put her commitment to the children before her job," Metts said.

Alston said she was pleasantly surprised by the extent of support she has received and said she did feel slighted by the process. "It was the first time I have gone into an interview knowing that I was the best choice," she said of her appearance before the committee.

Kempe said the governor's office believes Alston's lawsuit was without merit. In a 2007 press release, Carcieri said some of the information in the lawsuit may have been outdated.

But Alston holds that the problems that prompted the suit remain prevalent today. "I filed the suit because of the poor conditions that existed, conditions that still do exist," she said.

Kempe dismissed the suggestion that Alston's lawsuit may have played into the committee's decision as "shameful" and "a disservice to the individuals serving on the search committee."

"Our approach," Kempe said, "is to have the very best qualified individuals."

The four candidates the committee recommended to the governor are Michael Coleman, who served as Rhode Island's first child advocate in the 1980s; Patricia Byrnes, who has served as an assistant public defender and as legal counsel in the child advocate's office; Regina Gibb, a supervisor for the state Department of Children, Youth and Families who has been a social worker; and Cindy Soccio, a special assistant attorney general for Washington County.

Kempe said the governor is currently interviewing each of the four candidates and will make a decision in the near future.

Addressing the current dispute, Francine Sherman, clinical professor at Boston College Law School and expert in juvenile law, said that "childcare services around the country tend to be very controversial."

Alston is "in a difficult role," Sherman said. Despite any political pressure, "ultimately her responsibility is to look out for the welfare of the children, to be an independent watchdog for the children of her state," she said.

Though Metts issued a press release earlier this month stating that he and State Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, "cannot support any nominee from Gov. Donald Carcieri for the position of State Child Advocate," he told The Herald Friday that now his opposition will not necessarily be towards the person selected, but towards the system and the process.



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