Push to Tackle Social Woes in Their Infancy

What many parents have long intuitively known is now backed by scientific research: The nurturing and care given babies, even before birth, can be crucial to success later in life.

Age zero to three years, in fact, is the key period of cognitive and emotional development in a child's life, researchers say.

In a fresh approach to tackling the root of a host of societal problems - from overcrowded prisons to low literacy rates among school children - the nation's governors are throwing their weight behind a national campaign to call attention to the needs of babies and boost programs in support of families. Hollywood and the White House are also getting into the act, with a TV special and national conference planned for spring.

"The goal is to have good child care, health care, parenting classes, and intervention programs for every community in the country," film director Rob Reiner told the National Governors' Association (NGA) here this week. "It starts with an education process."

Governors say the initiative is particularly important as welfare reform begins to take hold. Work requirements will mean more mothers of young children entering jobs and school - and expanded need for quality child care.

"The quality of that child care could make all the difference for the life chances of these children," says Emily Fenichel, associate director of the Washington-based Zero to Three center.

Some governors have already been giving special attention to early childhood. In North Carolina, the Smart Start program works to improve the quality and availability of child care, health care, and family-support services. In Ohio, Gov. George Voinovich (R) notes that state spending on programs for children and families has increased 34 percent since 1991, while overall state spending has slowed.

Governors are realizing that money spent up front in helping families cope with parenting can translate into money saved in later years on juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, and prisons.

At the NGA, Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado suggested that states take one-quarter of 1 percent of their prison budgets and buy books and creative toys for underprivileged populations.

But the NGA initiative is not just aimed at poorer communities. Knowing what to do with a new baby can be just as baffling to affluent parents as it can be to the less-well-off. And so the initiative is taking a broad-brush approach to reach as wide a swath of public attention as possible.

A six-member bipartisan task force, led by Mr. Voinovich and Gov. Bob Miller (D) of Nevada, will assess what the federal and state governments are already doing for children ages zero to three, and what governors can do to improve services.

How to pay for any added programs has not been a focus so far, but the money issue could loom large in an era of tax-cutting at the state and federal levels. Grants from foundations, corporations, and nonprofit groups are already instrumental in leveraging government dollars for existing programs, and sources are quick to suggest new ways to bring in more nongovernmental money for services to new parents.

One example, suggests an aide to a Republican governor, would be to ask the baby-food corporations to underwrite the cost of producing videos on infant and toddler development for new parents. "It would be another way for them to reach their target market," says the aide.

The NGA has hired the RAND Corp. to do a cost-benefit analysis of early-childhood intervention programs.

A key to the success of any governors' initiative will be to allay conservatives' concerns that it represents another example of government intrusion in American family life.

One acclaimed program, the St. Louis-based Parents as Teachers, has faced opposition from conservative activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly. The program, which operates on the premise that parents are their children's first and most influential teachers, sends certified parent educators into families' homes to help parents with child-rearing and development.

To overcome objections to government intrusion in the home, families participate on a voluntary basis, a crucial feature of its success, says Joy Rouse, deputy director of Parents as Teachers. She says the program, now operating in 47 states, is available to any family with a Parents as Teachers program in the area (though some areas have waiting lists). The fact that people of all income levels are eligible makes it more appealing to lower-income families, she says.

"We recruit in waiting rooms of public-health clinics," says Ms. Rouse. "There's no resistance, because they know it's for everyone."

President Clinton put in his own pitch for early-childhood learning in his State of the Union address, noting "how important it is for parents to begin immediately talking, singing, even reading to their infants."

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