Matt Driscoll

Conspiracy theorists target policies that could help Pierce County’s struggling kids

There’s a conspiracy afoot.

The devious plan involves nefarious global agencies, diabolical data collection and wicked in-home visits, soon to be forced on the good and well-meaning parents of Pierce County.

At least that’s what’s coming if you listen to a vocal contingent of detractors and read between the lines of statements offered by some fairly predictable members of the Pierce County Council

Of course, you can be forgiven if you’re finding it hard to see the connection between all this subterfuge and two seemingly innocuous items currently being considered by the council, both of which have the goal of making life better for kids.

Which makes you a sheep blindly being led to slaughter by shadowy forces hell-bent on taking away your rights as a parent. Or boringly non-delusional. Take your pick.

Spoiler: It’s likely the latter, though that hasn’t stopped what Pierce County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg describes as a blatant “misinformation” campaign.

That campaign includes a newsletter created and distributed by County Councilman Jim McCune, and deceptions spread by an upstart nonprofit with a failed County Council candidate serving as its director. Both have resulted in a deluge of boilerplate emails and postcards sent to County Council members.

The question now is, will it work?

The first item being considered by the council would establish a 21-person advisory commission to help the council and County Executive make policy and budget decisions on issues related to infant, child, youth and young adult development. It was expected to be voted on Tuesday, until County Council weirdness — in the form of several bizarre and sabotaging last-minute amendments — delayed things for a week

For those playing at home, the proposed advisory commission — flying under the name P-25, representing a focus on prenatal to age 25 — would act just like the county’s many other advisory boards. These boards offer community and expert input on a number of issues, from boating, lodging taxes and firearms to solid waste, surface water and developmental disabilities.

Supporters say it’s important for county leaders to get similar advice on infants, children and young adults as the county grapples with failings across numerous social and economic fronts. The county’s shortcomings, they say, can be seen in troubling metrics like low education attainment, low birth weights, young adult homelessness and a staggering number of child dependency cases.

Supporters also note that a number of counties already have similar advisory boards.

The second item seems to have even less consequence, though it’s attracting just as much conspiratorial attention.

It’s a resolution that would do little more than express the council’s “intent to prioritize prenatal-to-three policies, best practices and cross coordination to improve child and family outcomes in Pierce County.”

If that sounds harmless, and perhaps even helpful, you have a point. But because the resolution was requested by the National Association of Counties, it’s raising red flags amongst the tin foil hat crowd.

That’s largely thanks to its link to a nationwide movement that includes things like Pierce County’s Help Me Grow pilot program, which came with a $25,000 grant from the National Collaborative on Infants and Toddlers and specifically aims to lower the number of child dependency cases.

Help Me Grow is designed to make sure “parents have the supports and resources they need before a crisis hits” and aims to improve “coordination among existing services,” according to the pilot program’s website.

The program does promote in-home visits from care providers shortly after births, though they’re optional — meaning someone will ask new parents at the hospital if it’s something they want. It also relies on data collection through a centralized access point, though it’s “population based” and used to ensure “a systemic review of family needs throughout our community,” guiding “advocacy efforts for where additional investment in children is needed.”

Supporters of both measures, like Pierce County Councilman Derek Young of Gig Harbor, call the ideas clear-cut and necessary.

“It’s increasingly clear that educational attainment and good life outcomes are about how we treat children,” Young says.

Speaking specifically to the proposed P-25 advisory commission, Young added: “Getting advice from experts … from my perspective, just seemed obvious.”

Of course it does, because it is.

According to a post from the Pierce County Republicans official Facebook page, however, the ordinance and resolution would “govern all children from womb to age 25” and “open the doors to home visitation, monitoring children’s medical records, and assessing growth and behavior of a child.”

The post, which was made Tuesday afternoon, mimics a recent newsletter sent out by McCune, which works to drum up fears about things like “data sharing” as well as “surveillance and screening.”

Attempts to reach McCune for comment were unsuccessful.

All of this is in lockstep with Sharon Hanek’s My Family My Choice nonprofit, which was officially incorporated this month. Along with rallying people in opposition of the P-25 advisory commission and the resolution expressing the council’s prioritization of prenatal-to-three policies, the website warns against state efforts to bolster social and emotional learning, vaccinations and sex ed.

Reached by phone, Hanek, who unsuccessfully ran for the District 1 seat on the County Council last year, described her opposition to the P-25 commission and prenatal-to-three resolution as a fight against lawmakers’ attempts to “dictate polices” and “take away the choice of families.”

So far, Ladenburg says she has received roughly 40 emails and postcards, all identical and striking the same paranoid chords.

Young put the number he’s received as “closer to 80.” He’s afraid they’ll work.

“We want to honor the right of parents to parent,” Hanek explained of her opposition.

She went on to cite a litany of fears about things like potential cost, forced vaccinations, the influence of grant money, a potential lack of cultural understanding, data collection, strict child-care regulations and forced in-home visitations.

Naturally, I pointed out the seeming irrationality of her argument. The P-25 commission would simply provide guidance from experts across various fields as well as members representing all seven council districts. It would have no cost, aside from the $25,000 the council has already budgeted for a consultant, and there’s no mention — in either proposal — of forced in-home visits.

Hanek persisted.

“It opens the door,” she promised. “When they start making recommendations and having their little hearings to go recommend policies to the County Council, the full danger comes out.”

“Do we really need this?” Hanek asked, with apparent sincerity.

Judging by the measurable ways Pierce County is already failing its children, the answer is yes, we probably do.

At the very least, it couldn’t hurt.

“For some reason, they aren’t thinking about the kids,” Ladenburg added of the bizarre attacks, the effectiveness of which we’ll have to wait until next week to gauge.

“It’s misinformation,” she continued. “And I have to work at getting the true information out about what this is and what this isn’t.”

Ah, if only life on the County Council was that simple.