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Children: Vulnerable in California

<i> Brian F. Cahill is president of Hathaway Children's Services in Pacoima</i>

What is the outlook for the 1.75 million California children who live in poverty? What is the outlook for the 36,000 babies born each year in California without the benefits of basic health care? What is the outlook for the 48,000 California children who are in foster care? What is the outlook for all of California’s vulnerable children and their families?

In early December, the Senate Select Committee on Children and Youth, headed by Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside) held a hearing in Sacramento on the coordination of children’s services in California. In light of the massive federal deficit--and especially in light of the passage of Proposition 98, which raises education funding, possibly at the price of other human-services programs--the subtitle of the hearing could have been “how to get along on less.”

The topic is not new to California policy-makers. Since 1970, both the legislative and executive branches have repeatedly addressed the lack of a comprehensive children’s-services system. In 1987, the Little Hoover Commission issued two reports on children’s services. The initial report pointed out that the California children’s-services system spends more than $5.9 billion annually, excluding state funds for kindergarten through grade 12 education and “is in a state of utter confusion and disarray.” The major finding of the final report states that there is a “lack of uniform state policy and well-defined organizational structure for providing children’s services.” Finally, at the Presley hearing on Dec. 7, a long list of witnesses testified on ways to improve coordination of California children’s services.

Why is it that almost 19 years of scrutiny has produced no real results? Why is it that in spite of outstanding individual efforts, services to vulnerable children are “in a state of utter confusion and disarray”? Why is it that one-fifth of all California children live in poverty, that we spend so little on prevention and early intervention services, that we continue to fund services that address single problems when we know so many of our vulnerable children have multiple problems?

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One answer to many of the above questions rests with what each of us thinks the role of government should be in providing protection and service to vulnerable children. Two other answers cannot be ignored. First, most of the opposition to past proposals has come from public and private agencies within the children’s-services arena who fear losing existing funding resources or fear of losing influence or identity. Second, little leadership or initiative was shown by either the governor’s office or the Legislature in developing a comprehensive system.

Clearly, the outlook is grim. But there are some signs of progress:

-- The Assembly last year passed legislation that may show the value of allocating resources for early-intervention child-welfare services. AB 558 provides for an experiment in three counties--10% of the foster-care allocation will be devoted to in-home services aimed at preventing family disruption, to see if the foster-care caseload can be reduced.

-- Thanks to the work of the Southern California Child Health Network, the value of funding prenatal health-care services is beginning to be recognized.

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-- The Ventura County Interagency Model and the San Bernardino Children’s Services Network are providing examples of county coordination.

-- The Los Angeles County Children’s Services Planning Council may be a model to demonstrate an effective public-private sector partnership in planning and service delivery.

-- The Los Angeles Roundtable for Children is composed of leaders from public and private agencies, volunteer organizations and universities who are committed to working together to improve the lives of children and their families in Los Angeles County.

The mission of the roundtable is to promote improved services and systems through research, education and public-policy recommendations. A major policy study conducted by the roundtable in May, 1986, on the “Children’s Budget of Los Angeles County,” highlighted the fragmentation of existing services and emphasized using all possible resources, increasing prevention and early intervention services and expanding public-private collaboration. The Board of Supervisors instructed the county’s chief administrative officer to develop an implementation strategy for the report’s recommendations.

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-- A new statewide organization for children, Children Now, aims to focus public attention on the conditions of children and on ways to improve their chances for a healthy and independent future. And the California Children’s Lobby has been working since 1971, in Sacramento and around the state, to improve conditions of child care and foster care.

All of us have a stake in how California provides protection and service for vulnerable children. The high numbers of children in poverty, the lack of early intervention services in health and social services, the lack of child-care resources and the lack of comprehensive services for multiple-problem children have a direct negative impact on the economy of this state, on the future effectiveness of our work force and on the safety and security of our communities.

Lisbeth B. Schorr, in her superb new book, “Within Our Reach” (Doubleday), is painfully eloquent on this point: “High rates of violent juvenile crime, school failure and adolescent child-bearing add up to an enormous public burden as well as widespread private pain. Our common stake in preventing these damaging outcomes is immense. We all pay to support the unproductive and incarcerate the violent. We are all economically weakened by lost productivity. We all live with fear of crime in our homes and on the streets. We are all diminished when large numbers of parents are incapable of nurturing their dependent young and when pervasive alienation erodes the natural sense of community.”

If there is to be progress, we must, as citizens and taxpayers, let our legislators know that we want increased government resources to be directed to vulnerable children. Within the children’s-services arena, public and private organizations must be willing to re-examine their perspectives. Finally, the governor and the Legislature must begin to exercise creative leadership.

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