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Summit May Signal Start of Better Days for Our Children

Roughly from the beginning of time, adults have fretted over the children. Somehow, though, the children have always survived, haven’t they?

The task for these times, then, is how to persuade people that kids really need our help more than ever and that we really need to zero in on children’s issues.

Statistics from the just-released annual “report card” from Children Now, a statewide child advocacy group, ought to do it: Orange County child-abuse reports have risen from 21,600 to 31,700 annually since 1988; incidents of violent crime have climbed from 10,600 to 13,900; teen pregnancies have gone from 3,500 to 4,700; health checkups for needy children run way below the statewide average. Two of every three eligible children are going without examinations.

But forget statistics. Let’s try the old Ronald Reagan approach, instead. Question: Do you think the 586,000 kids in Orange County are better off now than their counterparts 10 years ago?

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I didn’t think so. But consider this prospect: What if things didn’t have to be worse 10 years from now than they are today?

That’s the working premise behind an Orange County network of public and private citizens determined to reverse what most of us think we see happening--the deterioration of family life and resultant bad effect on children.

So far, the group has done the behind-the-scenes stuff that might bore you--things like drafting “mission statements” and forming committees and setting goals.

That’s OK. They don’t care if you pay attention to them right now. Their coming-out party will be May 15 in what they’re calling the Orange County Summit for Children, an all-day session at Chapman University.

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Down the road, they envision some kind of Orange County “super-council” that will for the first time coordinate a whole range of issues designed to improve the lot of children.

It’s ridiculous that there’s not a county clearinghouse for children and family issues. From things as simple as where to get counseling or other services, to more ambitious programs such as pushing legislation or encouraging working professionals or volunteers to donate time, the summit leaders think they can create a new mind-set about children’s issues.

“What’s happened is the breakdown of family and community,” Mary Ann Xavier, a longtime child advocacy worker and project director for the summit, said. “When I was growing up the whole community raised you. Mom didn’t have to have eyes everywhere the six of us went. Now, people don’t even know who their neighbors are. There’s not a sense of community. The summit can build that. I’d like to see cities saying, ‘This is what our city can do.’ ”

Driving the movement, Xavier said, is “the declining state of things for kids and families, evidenced by increased violence and things you didn’t see 10 years ago in Orange County. Ten years ago, you could comfortably look and say, ‘That’s L.A.’ You can’t say that anymore. It’s right here, every day you pick up the paper, it’s right here. It’s here, not something miles away, and it seems to be growing in seriousness.”

Xavier thinks Orange County has a leg up on some other counties, based on her statewide experience. “It’s sensible, people aren’t running around like all kind of horrible things are about to happen. You go into other counties and there’s a real frenetic pace. There just seems to be a better sense that things are going well in Orange County. I think that’s why we can do something now. We’re not so far gone that it can’t reverse itself.”

The report card from Children Now suggests Orange County is doing somewhat better than most other counties. However, said James Steyer, president of Children Now, “In certain things, Orange County isn’t doing nearly as well as it should. But there’s no place in the Golden State that’s truly golden for kids and families, not even Marin County and not even Orange County. Our big message is that it’s time to come home to our children. That means what we do as individuals, parents, voters and volunteers is going to be the real change for kids and families.”

It’s early in the game, but in her mind’s eye, Mary Ann Xavier can picture how it will all come together. Finally, one central organization will concentrate the effort on improving children’s lives. Finally, things that work will be passed around, city to city.

At this stage, she doesn’t want to get bogged down in thinking how daunting the job is. “I think there is a level of hopelessness,” she said, “so we have to focus on things that are happening that are turning it around. There is hope, if we take it piece by piece, community by community.”

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