Report Links Crime to Bad Child Care

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of touting tough policies to prosecute juvenile offenders, a group of California law enforcement officials now says that quality child care and early education are among the most powerful weapons against crime.

In a report to be released today, the group asserts that California is in a child-care crisis that could ultimately place families at greater risk of becoming crime victims.

The conclusions come from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California, a year-old statewide nonprofit organization whose members include Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, other county sheriffs, chiefs of police, district attorneys and crime victims.

The study, the group's first, is to be unveiled during a news conference at Hoover Intergenerational Care, a South Los Angeles child-care center. It draws on recent research showing that at-risk children enrolled in high quality child-care programs are much less likely to become criminals or have serious behavioral problems than similar children without any such care or in poor programs.

"Just as fire departments know that it's better to prevent fires than have to extinguish them, law enforcement knows that it's better to prevent crime than have to deal with its effects afterward," said Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, a member of the Fight Crime executive committee.

Supporters say the release of the report could not be more timely, coming amid the latest spate of violent episodes involving youngsters, including a 15-year-old freshman at a San Diego County high school--who was reportedly picked on by classmates--charged with murder and other crimes after a shooting that left two students dead and 13 injured; a 14-year-old Florida boy--reportedly obsessed with professional wrestling--tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a 6-year-old playmate.

The Fight Crime report makes it clear that the group is not lobbying to overturn laws in California and other states that allow prosecutors to try juveniles as adults for some violent crimes. But the group argues that policymakers must start paying more attention to the social causes of criminal acts.

Key findings of the new report include:

* Only about 4% of licensed child-care centers in California have been accredited by the national organization that reviews standards of such care.

* Child-care workers, paid less than telemarketers and crossing guards, are leaving the field at an alarming rate.

* Financial assistance is unavailable to more than 1 million eligible California children because programs that help low-income families afford child care are underfunded.

* State and federal funding for child care in California totals more than $3 billion yearly, yet only a relatively small portion is specifically dedicated to educationally enriching activities.

The report looked at a Michigan study that has followed 3- and 4-year-old children considered to be at risk of failing at school and getting into trouble. The children not enrolled in a quality preschool program that included weekly home visits were five times more likely to become chronic juvenile offenders by age 27.

That study also found, on the other hand, that children who did receive the services had significantly higher high school grades, were more likely to earn high school diplomas and were half as likely to be placed in classes for the mentally impaired.

A Rutgers University economist estimated that the Michigan program produced nearly $150,000 per participant in savings from reduced crime and legal costs. If 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income California families attended a similar program for two years, government saving could total $19 billion, the report concludes.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an offshoot of a national organization, is supporting bills now in the California Legislature that would provide funds to pay for child care for all eligible children within five years and that would increase the amount of government reimbursement to child-care facilities for low-income children.

"I don't think we can say which actions could have been prevented had there been quality child care, but if you look at data and can say children are half as likely to become chronic offenders, then yes, lives will be saved," Maryann O'Sullivan, state director of the Oakland-based group, said of the recent school violence.

Such questions haunt the thoughts of Richard and Hedie Foss, an Alta Loma, California couple whose 18 year-old son, Mark, was killed 10 years ago by a 15-year-old friend.

Mark had been involved in gangs and drugs, said Hedie Foss, who, with her husband, is a member of the Fight Crime advisory committee.

He was getting his life together, engaged to be married and about to start studying for a diploma. But he did not abandon his old friends, including his killer, who had a police record dating to the age of 5.

"Maybe if these programs would have been in place when Mark's killer was 4 or 5, maybe it would have made a difference, but they weren't," she said.

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