Al Deitch chooses to remain hopeful. It’s no easy task given that the State’s Youth Advocacy and Involvement Office (YAIO) he directs recently was cut out of the Governor’s proposed budget. But , neither the budget squeeze nor the possible elimination of YAIO can deter his optimism. "I’m hoping people will see the value in us continuing to do the work we’ve been doing on behalf of the kids in this state," says Al Deitch from North Carolina.
As an employee and leader at YAIO for the past two decades — initially as a child advocacy specialist and currently as its interim director —- Deitch has played a substantial role in making the office both valuable and relevant. While serving as the umbrella agency for four state councils serving youth, YAIO has taken on issues ranging from infant mortality to black adoption. In the 1980s, Deitch played a significant role in his agency’s mission to reduce the infant mortality rate in North Carolina. "We helped start prenatal clinics in counties that didn’t have them," says Deitch. He recalls how this was accomplished through talking to health officials in those counties and prompting local media to highlight the lack of this vital service. Since these clinics were opened, the state’s infant mortality rate has declined by more than 13%. "That’s our job as advocates," says Deitch, clarifying his responsibility "to push the system. And when the system doesn’t respond to the needs of children, it’s our job to make it respond."
Similar pressure was applied to bring about penalties for landlords disregarding smoke detector laws in the 1990s. After a number of children died as a result of apartment fires, YAIO and the NC Child Fatality Task Force successfully persuaded the legislature to penalizing landlords who failed to provide smoke detectors. During this process, Deitch testified at state legislative hearings and worked tirelessly to promote the cause. The number of fire-related deaths of children is currently half what it was prior to these efforts.
Deitch also spearheaded his office’s key role in the establishment of the state’s only African-American adoption agency, Another Choice for Black Children. He helped the Charlotte-based agency acquire over $700,000 in state and federal grants. Another Choice is now nationally recognized as one of the most effective and successful adoption groups in the country. "He’s a hard worker, a strong advocate and a man with vision," says Ruth Amerson, Another Choice’s founder and current director. She cites his critical role in attracting attention and funding to such statewide issues as adoption, foster care and child safety. "He is totally interested in the welfare of children and families," continues Amerson. "I don’t think North Carolina truly understands the value of what he gets out of "the system" for our children."
Apparently, some do understand. Deitch recently was recognized by the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children — a coalition of more than 130 member organizations representing 500,000 people across NC – as state government’s "Best Public Servant" for the state’s children. His numerous other honors include being named as the "Best Child Advocate in the Triangle" by the Independent Weekly, and being given the "Outstanding Child Advocate Award" by the North Carolina Friends of Black Children Association.
"It’s always been an interest of mine to try to help people who’ve been given the run around, match them up with resources, or at least give them an ear so they feel that someone is listening and concerned about their problem," says Deitch. "Even if you can’t solve the problem," he continues, "you at least show them the respect and attention they deserve."
Being respectful and attentive to "ordinary" people was one of the many values instilled in the Boston native by his parents at a young age. "Do the best you can, work hard, be a good parent and study hard," remembers Deitch, of lessons learned from his working-class parents. "Neither one of them had a high school diploma," he reveals. "But they certainly saw the need for an education."
This encouraged Deitch to attend Northeastern University in Boston where he majored in public service, and then North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he did graduate studies in the Dept. of Public Administration. After leaving school, Deitch worked as a legal assistant for the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. In this capacity, along with writing federal grants and operating food and nutrition programs, he directed developmental disabilities projects for Indian infants and children in Halifax and Warren counties for five years. In 1984, Deitch joined YAIO as a child advocacy specialist and soon gained a reputation among his peers as a dedicated and tireless champion for children who had been mistreated by the government agencies that were supposed to help them.
Deitch certainly has not shied away from controversy — especially when it comes to protecting children. In the mid-1990′s, as a child advocacy supervisor, Deitch became aware of a growing number of sexual abuse allegations at state-run schools for the deaf. "We contacted the appropriate state agency with these concerns," he says, noting that "they kind of blew us off. So we asked for a state SBI investigation of the matter." Acknowledging the risks and potential political backlash involved in prompting one state agency to investigate another, Deitch clarifies what ultimately caused him to take such a bold step. "We’re talking about the possible sexual abuse of kids," he says, stressing the additional impediments to a deaf child’s ability to communicate such criminal acts.
YAIO came up with a list of recommendations that included tighter security and better training of school staffers, and sent it to the relevant state officials. Little was done with the recommendations until months later when additional allegations surfaced and the press caught on to the issue. A high-level state task force was quickly formed and the reforms that were ultimately made were based on the YAIO recommendations. "We pushed the system to make to make the necessary changes for these kids," says Deitch. "And I’m proud of that."
Deitch can take pride in many of his accomplishments for children.. For two decades, he has successfully pushed the system from the inside to respond in positive ways to the needs of children and their families in North Carolina. While acknowledging the limitations of being an advocate ‘in the belly of the beast,’ Deitch emphasizes the bottom line in his ongoing fight to create a state more responsive to its most vulnerable children. "I was going to do anything I could to protect them," he says – and he’s done just that over and over again for many years.
Al Deitch’s positive attitude, passion for fairness, proven effectiveness and determination to keep government honest in meeting its obligations to young North Carolinians are well known. This makes it all the more astonishing that his job and the State’s only Youth Advocacy and Involvement Office were slated for elimination in the Governor’s proposed budget. And yet, instead of dwelling on his own precarious situation, Deitch just keeps on doing what he always has done best – helping state government live up to it’s own good intentions.