Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Constitution: Ex-senator is ideal choice for child advocate post
Tuesday, June 6, 2000

In establishing the new office of child advocate, Gov. Roy Barnes heralded a fresh chapter in the state's dismal history of protecting innocent young victims of abuse and neglect. But it will be the same old story if Barnes refuses to fill that office with a tough and independent voice for children.

He has the ideal child advocate in former state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver. She's an attorney with a lot of courtroom experience with issues involving children, and she's strong enough to revamp an agency so troubled that Barnes himself describes it as a "mess."

No one in the state of Georgia can match Oliver's knowledge of the state Division of Family and Children Services. As a legislator, Oliver's signature appeared on every piece of legislation crucial to child welfare. She toughened the collection of child support, banned stalking and cut red tape to speed up adoption of abused and neglected children. Equally important, Oliver blocked dozens of initiatives aimed at weakening protections for children.

With such an outstanding resume, it's difficult to fathom why Barnes would overlook Oliver. There are no good reasons, only political ones. Oliver ran for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1998 against the eventual winner, Mark Taylor, who is apparently still smarting from the campaign.

Another stumbling block to Oliver's appointment is the governor's apparent determination to micromanage this new office. Barnes stopped short of creating a truly independent child advocate, contending that the state constitution stood in the way of granting the advocate the right to sue state agencies in court for failure to protect children. The more likely reason is that Barnes wanted to retain control over the office.

As a student of history, Barnes understands that strong and effective leaders surround themselves with people of strength. Oliver's keen intellect, her passion for children and her knowledge of the system are assets to Barnes, not threats to his power.

Admittedly, Oliver can be caustic, but she is capable of forging relationships with such prickly political personalties as House Speaker Tom Murphy. When differences arose between the House and Senate on key bills, Oliver was always called upon to negotiate the compromises.

As the co-author of the bill creating the child advocate, Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta) says the person will have to be aggressive in pushing the agenda of the office and still be able to persuade state agencies to do what is right for children. Oliver has proven herself capable on each of those fronts.

The speculation under the Gold Dome is that Barnes is eying several state employees for the advocate's post. Their most outstanding qualification seems to be their malleability. Since children's lives are at stake with this appointment, Barnes ought to think long and hard before he allows politics to dictate his choice. This is a case where his conscience ought to be his guide.

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