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Erie County leaders are giving their blessing to President Bush's campaign to turn churches and faith groups into providers of social services across the nation. They have just one question:

What took the rest of the country so long to catch on?

Erie County is miles ahead of the pack when it comes to using faith-based groups and churches to provide social services to needy residents. County Executive Joel A. Giambra said he is determined to increase those initiatives in coming months by reaching out to more and more religious groups.

"Government can't change mind-sets, and we have a real problem changing hearts," said Giambra, a Republican. "This is a way of intervening in people's lives."


Children classified as "persons in need of supervision" will soon be sent to homes run by Father Nelson H. Baker's modern-day legacy, Baker Victory Services, and by Greater Refuge Temple of Christ. Up to now, these children have been housed in the run-down, bunkerlike Youth Detention Center on East Ferry Street.

Public money is helping pay for a $4.5 million "family life center" under construction on Michigan Avenue near St. John Baptist Church. Federal funding is in place; the church is also likely to get city and county support for its programs.

Pastoral care in the Youth Detention Center for high-security youth offenders is now being provided by Erie County. Many of the children and teens are accepting God into their lives, Giambra said, and an unprecedented number -- at least 20 -- have been baptized on-site.

Not everyone thinks such changes are a good thing.

Some community leaders worry that giving taxpayer money to faith-based groups will blur the line be
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Faith groups: Erie County Social Services has 48 such contracts
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tween church and state. Others argue that the trend may draw government money away from other worthy organizations -- or that faith groups will proselytize as they provide service. Still others said the quality of the faith-based staff workers, and the care they provide, simply won't be as good as what is offered now.

"You have to understand that this is a political move," said Lynn E. Shaftic-Averill, spokeswoman for Episcopal Community Services. "We could actually see a decline in service. That's a real fear."

But Giambra and other supporters of faith-based initiatives say those arguments miss the point. It's clear, they say, that churches and faith-based groups are the most effective way to make a real difference in people's lives.

Ahead of the curve

Where in Erie County can you find faith-based social services?

Just about everywhere.

Erie County far outpaces neighboring counties such as Niagara and Chautauqua when it comes to the use of agencies and groups with ties to religious organizations.

Erie County's Social Services Department has 48 contracts with faith-based groups that provide services to more than 27,000 county residents each year. Those services are in all areas -- everything from bus tokens and child care to long-term nursing and emergency services.

One example is Baker Victory Services, the modern-day legacy of Father Baker, a Lackawanna priest being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church. At Baker Victory, millions of dollars in county, state and federal taxpayers' money help pay for the care of emotionally disturbed, developmentally disabled and needy people of all ages.

"We have government-funded programs that take care of people from birth to old age," said Joseph J. Cozzo, Baker Victory's chief operating officer. "Father Baker's legacy is something we consider very important. We're faith-based in terms of our heritage, tradition and mission -- but no client is ever turned away for faith reasons."

In addition, Erie County's Youth Services Department uses 22 faith-based groups -- ranging from community churches and temples to the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities -- to provide services to an estimated 4,035 young people in the county each year. That doesn't count the three ministers who work in-house as pastors for inmates at the Youth Detention Center, where more children and teenagers were baptized recently.

"Some of these kids have never had an opportunity to know Christ," said Richard T. Nelson, superintendent of the detention center. "They're looking for a savior."

In Niagara County, the numbers are much smaller.

Niagara County's Social Services Department uses 14 faith-based services to provide care to about 330 residents a year. Most of that care is day care and preventive care for families, said Sharon Sloma, deputy social services commissioner.

In Chautauqua County, 18 faith-based groups serve county residents each year, with another dozen or so churches and faith groups used on a spot basis for special needs, said Edwin J. Miner, the county's commissioner of social services. Altogether, about 1,000 Chautauqua County residents are served by the groups each year, he said.

Miner said he would use even more faith-based agencies if he could.

"It's practical," said Miner. "I look at my community, and I realize churches play a huge role. Why would I want to exclude a large chunk of the community with a lot of energy to help people?"

That's exactly why more and more faith-based groups will be used in Erie County in the future, said Giambra.

"Because we're in government, there are few opportunities to deal with a person's faith," Giambra said. "This is changing people's hearts and minds."

Concerns about the trend

But concerns are cropping up about faith-based services in Erie County. They mirror the worries being expressed on the national level about Bush's proposals.

Some concerns include:

Whether funding faith-based groups will mean diverting public funds from long-standing social service organizations that have proven track records.

Whether faith-based groups will include religious components to their service, and whether such components will be mandatory.

Whether the workers in faith-based organizations will meet the standards of professionals working for nonreligious and secular agencies.

"It's not to say there aren't some things that volunteers can't do," said Ruth W. Mayden, president of the National Association of Social Workers and dean of the graduate school of social work at Bryn Mawr College. "But these services aren't religious counseling; these services are intervention. It's hands-on work to bring these people back."

The issue of the dividing line between church and state is one that bothers some local observers, including Andrew T. Goldstein, a community activist and head of the Erie County Green Party.

"It would help these organizations if they kept their religion separate, because eventually it will come back to haunt them," said Goldstein. "If there's money being given out, you'll see more and more of these churches popping up. They'll be there for the money."

That's one of the reasons Erie County needs to proceed slowly in using new faith-based services, with lots of controls in place, said one county legislator.

"Funding may help, but there are no easy solutions," said Judith P. Fisher, D-Buffalo, who heads the Legislature's Health Committee and sits on its Social Services Committee. "Sometimes government wants to get rid of its responsibilities, but there is a role for government to play."

The challenges are tough for a faith-based group looking to open up a social service outlet.

On a recent weekday morning, officials from the state's Office of Children & Family Services walked through a Carlton Street house owned by Greater Refuge Temple that will soon be a home for troubled children who are wards of the county. Officials noted repairs that must be made before any children can enter the home -- such as the removal of suicide risks like mirrors, glass and closet rods. Also, precautions are necessary because the children sometimes try to set fire to their rooms, state officials told church leaders.

Committed to the job

It was a daunting picture. But Bishop Robert L. Sanders, leader of the large East Side church, said his church is committed to the job.

"It's part of our mission as a church in the community," said Sanders. "This is the church beyond the church walls."

Sanders and religious leaders like him hope the new funding promised by the Bush and Giambra administrations will help them build on the foundations they have laid in their communities.

For Greater Refuge Temple, that may mean expanding the church's gym or computer lab facilities.

For St. John Baptist Church, it may mean help in completing the $4.5 million structure the church is building on Michigan Avenue. When it is finished, the center will provide everything from weight rooms to health clinics to homework help.

"Churches have been doing this for the last 50 years. We just haven't gotten any funds from the government," said the Rev. Bennett W. Smith, head of St. John Baptist Church. "Now the government is realizing churches can do this better than they can. And they're giving us money so we can do it bigger and better."

Bush has made it clear that faith-based groups will be key players in his administration.

"Compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government," Bush said in unveiling his faith-based initiative last month. "When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives."

Since taking office, Bush has set up a White House office of faith-based community initiatives to oversee efforts to recruit and coordinate the various groups, which are expected to be in line for billions of dollars of federal aid over the next 10 years. Helping lead the efforts are Catholic political scientist John J. DiIulio Jr. and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who is Jewish.

Deeper implications

Political experts said that while Bush's proposals may sound palatable on the surface, people may grow more concerned when they realize the deeper implications of the issue.

"Are people going to be happy with Louis Farrakhan getting subsidized with federal money to run his programs? Because that's what this question is going to come down to," said Michael Haselswerdt, a political scientist at Canisius College. "There are too many questions. It's just not clear."

That's why, Haselswerdt said, the issue of government money going to support faith-based services will likely become a question for the courts to settle.

"The issue is, should government support it?" Haselswerdt said. "I think the Supreme Court will eventually have to rule on this."

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