Activists to Bureaucrats: To Help Kids, Share Power

IN an effort to shift the care of needy children from aloof bureaucrats to hands-on humanitarians, a child-welfare group has identified 3,885 communities in the United States where children most suffer from poverty and social turmoil.

Some 3.9 million children in the ``severely distressed'' neighborhoods confront the prospect of inadequate schooling, joblessness, out-of-wedlock parenting, and violence, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The children suffer, in part, because distant officials are unfamiliar with the childrens' needs and the conditions in their poor, turbulent neighborhoods. Officials behind this ``absentee human-service system'' would more effectively help children by granting more funding and decision-making power to grass-roots aid groups, says the private charity.

``The most effective way to improve the lives of these children is to invest in the communities in which they live,'' says Douglas Nelson, director of the foundation based in Greenwich, Conn.

In fact, there is a growing consensus that local service organizations, religious groups, clubs, tenant associations, and other grass-roots institutions must be at the vanguard of efforts to aid children and families, say advocates for child welfare.

Officials are recognizing that the people who work hardest to eliminate child abuse and other social problems are usually the people who live amongst those problems, they say.

``By focusing all welfare efforts at the state level, officials inadvertently removed local political authority, power, interest, and accountability from the equation,'' says Jerome Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children.

A nationwide survey released by the foundation on Monday reveals that almost half of US children in ``severely distressed'' neighborhoods live in just six states: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Texas. (The neighborhoods feature high poverty rates, unemployment, and welfare reliance.)

The foundation's 1994 Kids Count Data Book, its annual survey on the well-being of children in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, reveals that the welfare of children in Illinois from 1985 until 1991 declined more than in any other state. According to 10 measures of child well-being, only Washington D.C. and 11 states are more remiss than Illinois in providing for disadvantaged children.

Because of the precipitous decline in its care for needy children, Illinois is becoming a testing ground for efforts at child-welfare reform, say child advocates. For example, the Casey Foundation recently funded a $2.5 million pilot program in which the state will consolidate field offices for welfare agencies into offices located at 11 low-income communities statewide.

A prospective welfare recipient will find at the ``one stop shop'' officials from the Department of Child and Family Services, the Department of Public Aid, and four other state agencies. The program is aimed at eliminating the maze of overlapping and contradictory policies among welfare departments.

The pilot program will also allow community groups to take over many programs run by the state agencies, a radical step vindicated by the Chicago community of North Lawndale.

The Lawndale Christian Health Center since 1991 has run a desk in a public-aid office where it offers free pregnancy tests and arranges prenatal care and child immunizations. It is considered largely responsible for a 23 percent drop in infant mortality in the community in 1992.

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