`Children cannot speak for themselves'

JACK Levine is an energetic man with a ready smile. But he turns serious as he stands before an audience at the Tallahassee Hilton, holding up a green sheet of paper. ``This simulated check is made out `To the children of Florida,' '' the executive director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth tells his listeners. ``But it's overstamped `Insufficient funds.' I want you to give one of these to each of the legislators you visit during the next two days. Our children's needs are known. But we have insufficient funds to meet them.''

Mr. Levine is speaking to some 200 child advocates from across the state who have gathered for the group's 10th legislative conference. Under the theme ``Florida's Children in Sunshine and Shadows,'' they have come to exchange information and strengthen citizen lobbying skills.

Here in Florida, where 30 percent of children live in poverty and where per-capita spending on social services ranks at the bottom nationally, efforts such as these are critical in keeping children's issues before the public eye. But even in more affluent states, this kind of grass-roots activism remains a vital force in monitoring children's needs, establishing services, and helping to formulate public policy.

``Financing Florida's growth -- taxes and budgets -- that's what it's all about for this year and the next five years,'' Levine says. ``We want to minimize the power of the Leave It to Beaver conservatives -- those who want to take our state back to 1955, when Mom was home with the children baking cookies, rather than go ahead to 2000. Mom is not home baking cookies for 4 out of 5 children, and the state budget needs to reflect that reality.''

``Children cannot speak for themselves,'' says Helen Gordon Davis, a state representative from Tampa. ``They are dependent on the goodwill of men and women in the Legislature, and the goodwill of child advocates.''

Often unpaid and largely unheralded, these advocates must choose from a complex array of issues, including abuse, neglect, poverty, foster care, adoption, health, and delinquency.

``It's like having 10 fingers and 30 holes in the dike,'' says Jim Lardie, executive director of the Association of Child Advocates, in Cleveland. ``There are never enough fingers.''

Complicating this work is the fact that the amount and quality of services children receive are often determined at the state and local level rather than through federal initiatives. The result is a crazy-quilt approach that leaves children in some states far better protected and provided for than those in other states.

A zealous, well-intentioned focus on a particular problem sometimes works against other children's issues. Because of recent media emphasis on sexual abuse, for example, Representative Davis notes, ``Florida put a lot of money into fingerprinting day-care workers last year. If they had put the same kinds of money into providing day-care slots for children, I think they would have had much more positive results for the money that was spent. Currently we have 22,000 children on the waiting list for subsidized day-care slots and no money to change that equation.''

Because the need for ``positive results'' is great and cries of ``no money'' common, advocates emphasize the importance of preventive measures.

``The 14-year-olds of the year 2000 will be born tonight,'' Levine says. ``What we do for their lives, for the lives of their parents, for the care and protective supervision they need will determine who those teen-agers will be in the 21st century.

``People must look at children through the life cycle and realize that opportunities missed earlier will have to be paid for later. It's a long-term mortgage that states can't afford.''

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