'At Risk' Youths: How to Help

In the time it takes to read this sentence, a child in America will drop out of school. In the time it takes to read this column, another child will run away and a teenage girl will have a baby.

The real horror is not the statistics themselves. It's the knowledge that behind each of these numbers is a real child. A child who cries like you and I do, who is as terrified as you and I would be if we walked in his or her shoes. Our streets are filled with these children. There are hundreds of thousands of them out there, lost, hungry, scared - alone. These are America's "at risk" kids.

I feel as though I know these children better than perhaps anyone. During my five years as president of Covenant House, the country's largest child-care agency, 200,000 homeless and runaway youths have ended up on my doorstep.

This past spring, increasingly overwhelmed by the avalanche of these lost kids, I asked Yankelovich Partners, a national public policy research firm, to survey American adults' opinions of the problem. The results are disturbing.

According to the sampling of 2,800 Americans, 1 in every 2 adults personally knows a young person who could be labeled "at risk" - children unable to function normally in society. Americans increasingly feel this crisis where it hurts the most - in their neighborhoods and homes. Respondents said one-third of the 17- to 21-year-olds in the country fall into this at-risk category. One-fourth said there's a young person at risk in their own family. Not surprisingly, 69 percent cited drug abuse as a major problem. Sixty-three percent cited dysfunctional families and lack of job skills.

The scourge of drugs and the breakdown of the American family are complex ills that require long-term solutions. What's most encouraging about this survey, however, is that American adults said they strongly favor two doable solutions - more job training for youth (67 percent) and job placement (62 percent). This broad consensus is on target.

For almost a decade, Covenant House has considered job-skills education and assistance in the job search the key to developing a young person's self-respect and personal investment in the future.

At any one time in its New York City facility, Covenant House has more than 100 18- to-21-year-olds in our "Rights of Passage" job-skills program, which has a 63 to 70 percent success rate a year after training is complete.

Covenant House's success in this area is largely due to its partnership with the local business community, which has set up several of the training modules and assisted in job placement. Fully 70 percent of the single mothers who graduate from the program are still employed in good positions - living independently without resorting to public assistance - a year after graduation.

These statistics are all the more significant in light of recent proposals to reduce or eliminate support for under-18 single mothers. Without assistance, what hope can they have of ever gaining skills for the kinds of jobs that lead to independence?

There is no evidence that doing away with welfare's small safety net will do anything but cause increased hardship for the young people and their infants. In the end, we will pay as a society through increased burdens on our medical and criminal-justice systems.

Eight of the 10 respondents to the survey said the country should be doing more to help at-risk young people. Four in 10 said the proposed reforms will offer less help to at-risk youth.

Clearly, we need to reform a system that has often encouraged dependence. Covenant House is one of many agencies, both private and government-supported, whose programs give young people a second chance to make it. Are our political leaders listening?

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