Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus Commission. And the director of a state agency that oversees troubled youth wants to do away with it. For more than 70 years, the mission of the jolly commission has been to bring a Christmas gift to juveniles in state custody. The idea was the brainchild of then state budget officer, R.R. Owens, who visited an orphanage in 1935 and learned the children had no Christmas presents. As a result, Owens created a three-member commission to raise private donations to make sure every ward of the state wouldn't go empty-handed on Christmas.
Who receives gifts?What started as a noble mission today verges on the absurd, given that 40 percent of those wayward youths are now criminals over the age of 18, said Gene Christian, Office of Juvenile Affairs director. "Everyone we are talking about, are people who committed criminal acts,” Christian said. Christian said he could only think of one 10-year-old being held by his agency — for murder. The director said he wouldn't be opposed to providing Christmas gifts to the small number of young children in state custody. About 8 percent of children under the agency's supervision are 10 or 11, and only a minority of those live in full-time state custody, mostly in group homes and mental health-related settings. Christian said he will ask legislators during the upcoming session to consider doing away with the commission, a move that has been considered at least once before. A 1986 vote by the House to do away with the board failed, 61-33. "The time and effort we spend on the Santa Claus Commission would be better spent on scholarships,” Christian said. "If a kid wanted to finish high school or go to college, we could help them out with that instead.”
What are the gifts?Christian said every year members of his agency's board of directors are curious when they see the Santa Claus Commission on annual budgets. The commission relies on donations and doesn't cost the agency anything but the time its members devote to acquiring the gifts, he said. This year, the commission spent about $5,500 to buy about 600 duffel bags for juveniles in state custody. The commission used to give a variety of inexpensive gifts but in recent years has chosen to give every youth the same gift to avoid conflicts. Last year's gift was a stationery set.