Getting It Together for Our Children : Powerful grand jury report shows how to improve services

When a child needs help, a parent should be able to get it close to home--as quickly and efficiently as humanly possible.

Under the current bureaucratic system, needy parents must often wait for a family crisis and then go through an inhibiting maze, agency to agency or program to program, telling their story over and over in search of assistance.

In too many tragic instances, the government intervenes only after severe problems have arisen and a child has been abused or neglected.

Why wait until the damage is done? A better and more cost-efficient strategy would emphasize prevention in a neighborhood setting. That is exactly what the Los Angeles County Grand Jury has recommended.

To put services closer to at-risk children and their families, the grand jury has recommended opening "one-stop" multiservice centers near schools in poor neighborhoods. The County Board of Supervisors must approve the recommendations to get a pilot program off the ground in Los Angeles. The concept is worth trying in communities statewide. The one-stop centers would try to reduce the problems that lead to child abuse and neglect. The neighborhood centers would also aim to strengthen families and help them negotiate the social service system without requiring them to go to buildings all over the sprawling county and without having to explain their personal situation over and over to different workers.

At a one-stop center, parents would be able to get emergency child care, immunizations, drug or alcohol abuse counseling, parenting lessons, literacy classes and other services in one convenient place with the help of a single caseworker.

Coordinating the many services will take sustained collaboration between government departments, but it can be done. The grand jury's approach is modeled after San Diego County's New Beginnings, an innovative neighborhood-based program that is about to open in a school in a poor area. It is governed by the city, county, local school and community college district.

Improving the system will also take money at a time when federal, state and local governments are grappling with budget deficits. The grand jury report acknowledges the financial dilemma and identifies several potential sources of funding. The report cites, for example, Gov. Pete Wilson's new and preventive Healthy Start program. Wilson has proposed spending $20 million on that program. The report also cites school dropout prevention funds, drug abuse prevention money and foster care funds as other potential sources of financing for the one-stop program. Care must be taken not to shift dollars from one crippling need to another.

The emphasis on prevention can eventually save public dollars. For every dollar scrimped on immunizations, taxpayers pay $10 to attend to children who catch measles and other preventable illnesses, according to a report released recently by Children Now, a nonprofit advocacy group. For every $1 held back from preschool education, the public ends up paying nearly $5 for costs associated with special education, welfare and public safety.

Those examples--and there are many others--prove that it is cheaper to pay a little now than to pay much more later.

The needs are great and growing throughout much of California. According to Children Now, even in affluent Orange County an increasing number of children are growing up in extreme poverty.

These children need help. Their parents shouldn't have to wait for a crisis or negotiate a dozen different bureaucracies to get it. One-stop centers would put that help closer at hand; the idea makes common sense and fiscal sense. And if it works for children's services, it ought to work for an array of social services for people of all ages.

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