Strengthening a sense of family for children in need

THERE is an impressive array of political and social programs addressing the plight of children in need. Suprisingly few, however, center around the family as the key to most solutions. Ironically, family has become a catchword to politicians and others looking for public support. They extol it, and call for a strengthening of it. But this adoration does not always translate into program commitments or financial support.

Today, special emphasis is placed on neglected, troubled, and abused children. An annual United Nations report, for example, focuses on homeless, sick, and hungry youngsters around the globe. It zeroes in on third-world youth.

In the United States, the Children's Defense Fund and the Child Welfare League of America, among others, periodically issue studies on child placement and foster care and provide congressional testimony to bolster funds for children's services. The House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families monitors a range of youth needs and tries to shepherd appropriate legislative responses.

Of late, legal and social service groups have thrown the spotlight on battered and sexually abused children and how to best help them.

Although these efforts are somewhat fragmented, many working in the field agree on these points:

1. Children are politically and socially powerless. They can't vote. And their voices are muffled by adults who control the channels of communication.

2. Despite a ``romanticizing'' about children -- in movies, television, and advertising -- many youngsters are still treated as chattel. They are merchandised and manipulated rather than nurtured by a supposedly caring society.

3. Legal decisions involving children often completely disregard the wishes of the individual child. Adoption and foster care placement, which ostensibly are to be made in the ``best interest of the child,'' are too often made to accommodate the system.

4. A dramatic increase in teenage pregnancies compounds the problem of caring for children in need.

5. Increased reporting, if not incidence, of sexual molestation of young children and child prostitution and slavery shows a need for new approaches and innovative solutions.

6. Evidence of widespread drug use, alcohol abuse and teenage suicide adds another thorny facet to the issue.

Although government and private programs address most of these problems singly, their efforts are often not coordinated.

Most experts on the young would agree that the greatest single need for all children is to be embraced by a loving, nurturing family. And yet courts and social service agencies -- while well-meaning -- sometimes tend to tear a child away from the family.

For example, an accusation of neglect or abuse in many states results in court-ordered removal of a child from the home and placement in public custody. Some child advocates insist that it should be the suspected abuser, rather than the child, who should be isolated from the family until the charge is investigated and the situation resolved.

And many children in long-term foster care who have found the comfort of a home with foster parents are forced to go elsewhere, because of either antiquated laws that prevent their adoption or inadequate funds to facilitate it.

Modernization of child placement laws and the passage of adoption subsidy legislation in some states are steps in the right direction. Greater efforts to place a child with a relative -- grandparent, aunt, or uncle -- when remaining in his or her own home is no longer possible, may help keep some sense of ``family'' intact.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is now in the process of carving out guidelines for judges who daily have to resolve cases relating to placement, care, treatment, and legal disposition of children in need. A comprehensive report is due to be issued in July.

A preliminary working paper, however, indicates that the Council's primary goal is to preserve and strengthen the family. ``The family is the foundation for the protection, care, and social education of America's children. To the extent that family life is damaged and dysfunctioning, the nation's children and the nation will suffer,'' these judges contend.

A Thursday column

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