AMERICANS WHO DON'T GIVE UP ON KIDS
CHILDREN are our most precious resource. Politicians say it, business people say it, educators say it. All America says it. But do we mean it? ``No civilized society would treat its children like we treat ours and then say children are our best resource,'' says Ira Schwartz of the Center for Youth Policy at the University of Michigan.Skip to next paragraph
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A majority of children in state care are poor or minorities, he says. ``If most of the kids in the system were middle-class kids, we'd not have a child-welfare system teetering on the brink of collapse. We'd not have kids being put in foster homes where they are abused or in detention centers that are just awful.''
For more than a century, America has debated how to treat its children in need. For much of that time, the nation warehoused them in large institutions. Reformers then worked to maintain children in the community, as in the foster-care system.
In more recent years, child-advocacy groups have argued that kids should receive optimum care from the state - the same quality of services that concerned parents would provide for their child.
In efforts to identify the best programs for kids and their families, the federal government, the states, and several private foundations all have their irons in the research fire. Although many programs are promising, they can be found in just a few sites across the United States.
Meanwhile, it is painfully evident that there's not a lot of money available - either from the deficit-ridden federal government or from financially strapped states - to expand them nationwide now or in the foreseeable future.
What hope, then, exists for changing the system of state care for children? The answer, say many experts in the field, rests with citizens themselves.
``We should utilize the vast numbers of volunteers and the community,'' says juvenile-court judge Leonard P. Edwards of Santa Clara County, Calif. ``It's too expensive to bring in whole new armies of [professional] social workers and probation officers.''
In some cases, citizens have had to fight to be heard - and the biggest obstacle has often been the system itself. But where citizen oversight of the system is diligent, the children benefit.
LAURA GONCE of Portland, Ore., is a special friend to Charlotte and Andre. They met at the Girls' Emancipation Program (GEP) at the YWCA, where Ms. Gonce is a volunteer and Charlotte was a resident.
Charlotte (not her real name) had been in and out of foster care since she was 12, and her son, Andre, became a foster child at birth. After graduating from the GEP program last December, Charlotte felt ready to be on her own - and the court freed her from state care. Now 18, the teen mom has regained custody of Andre, holds a job, and is no longer on any type of public assistance.
But she still gets a helping hand from ``coach'' Gonce. Gonce spends three or four hours a week with mother and son. They go to the park, out for Mexican food, or shopping. She has helped Charlotte find furniture for her apartment and baby things for Andre.
Gonce says Charlotte used to be a lonely and depressed girl who refused to come out of her room. ``Now she's active, and she's taking more and more control of her life,'' Gonce says. ``She feels less and less overwhelmed. She's starting to dream.''