Help Children at Risk by Uniting Aid-Givers' Vision

Brian Cahill, president of Hathaway Children's Services in Pacoima, is also president-elect of the Los Angeles Children's Roundtable

California's efforts to protect and serve vulnerable children--in education, health, safety, teen years and family life--received a grade of D from Children Now, a statewide child advocacy organization, in a "report card" issued four weeks ago.

Gov. George Deukmejian was displeased, saying the state spent more on poor children than any other state and that the report card itself deserved an F. But he and other policy-makers, along with business leaders and concerned citizens, should take a close look at the marks that resulted in a D and what they mean:

-- More than 20% of our children live in poverty.

-- The number of children in foster care and other out-of-home settings is approaching 70,000.

-- California's teen pregnancy rate is the second-highest in the nation.

-- Nearly half of all California toddlers are not adequately immunized against disease.

-- One-third of our children do not graduate from high school.

Since 1970 the state has been attempting to develop a comprehensive system for serving vulnerable children and their families, seeking the best way to coordinate the range of services for health, family support, early childhood education and treatment. An endless list of reports, studies and proposals have been generated; issues have been analyzed and problems have been defined, ad nauseam.

Why so little progress? Why did the Little Hoover Commission in 1987 declare that children's services in California "are in a state of utter confusion and disarray?" Why is there so little serious planning at the state and county level? Why is so little spent on early-intervention services? Why is there so little coordination on the delivery of children's services?

The major barrier to a comprehensive system of children's services may not be policy-makers' ignorance or lack of leadership by elected officials. The biggest obstacle may be tunnel vision within the field of children's services.

Since 1970, most of the opposition to major policy proposals has come from public and private organizations or professional groups who have feared losing existing funding or influence. They have shown an inability and unwillingness to work together to frame a common agenda for children's services in California.

In the public sector, even a partial listing of organizations points to fragmentation. The California Welfare Directors Assn. concentrates on child-protective services, foster-care issues and funding. The conference of Local Mental Health Directors is primarily concerned with funding for community mental health services. The focus of the Chief Probation Officers Assn. is juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. While there have been recent attempts at interagency planning and service in some counties, most public agencies serving children are not working together, let alone with their private-sector counterparts.

In the private sector, the field is even more fragmented and divisive. The California Child Care Resource and Referral Network and the California Child Care Consortium deal with child-care issues. The California Assn. of Services for Children, the California Foster Parents Assn. and the California Assn. of Homes for Children deal primarily with foster-care issues. The California Child, Youth and Family Coalition concentrates on runaway and homeless youth.

The special-interest list is long: California Child Abuse Consortium, the California Council of Mental Health Contractors, the California Assn. of Private Special Education Schools, the California Assn. of Adoption Agencies and the California Assn. Concerned With School-Age Parents, to name but a few.

There is an incredible richness of talent, commitment and diversity within these organizations, yet most of them work independently of one another; their leaders are unacquainted and most of their efforts are concentrated on a single aspect of a child's life.

It is instructive to speculate on how the governor and the Legislature might react to a solid, broad-based children's-services coalition with only four or five comprehensive proposals considered in each legislative session.

Increased public spending is necessary for children's services (and a recent California Now poll shows the public, by substantial margins, supports increased spending, even if it means higher taxes), but new money alone will not solve the problem. Most public and private children's-service providers are committed professionals. However, they are dependent on state and federal funding, along with policies that provide few incentives for early intervention or coordination. And they are so preoccupied in the struggle to protect their own funding that they fail to see the need for shifting incentives and resources toward early intervention and more comprehensive services.

While ignorance and a lack of leadership on the part of our elected officials is certainly a serious problem in reorganizing children's services, clearly the greater barrier is the resistance to change and the limited perspective among the public and private organizations, as well as those interests responsible for protecting and serving vulnerable children.

Policy-makers and service providers alike must find a way to breach that barrier.

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