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If we want our children (and the rest of us) to have a good future, we need to pay more attention to how our children are faring.

Virginia's Report Card

The United Nations Children's Fund has released a new report that tells us that the children of the world are not doing very well.

So how are Virginia's children faring today?.

Good question. I wish it were a question on the mind of the governor and every legislator going into the next session of the General Assembly because our media carry stories almost daily about children suffering the effects of abuse, poverty, inadequate health care and neighborhood violence. The following quote from the 1999 KIDS COUNT in Virginia Data Book reveals that on an average day in Virginia:
246 children are born
36 did not receive prenatal care
19 weigh less than 5.5 pounds
2 children die before their first birthday
28 children are found to be abused or neglected
1 child (age 12-14) dies
11 youths (ages 12-17) are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease
10 girls (ages 15-17) have babies
5 youths are arrested for a violent crime
112 young people are processed for a delinquent offense
20 children are placed in foster care
381,356 children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch

That's on an average day.

Sadly, we are the only Western nation that does not have a national commitment to its children. We have many agencies and programs that minister to bits and pieces of our children's lives, but they are all struggling for the same dollars, spending valuable resources and energy to stay alive, hoping to find the magic word or campaign that will stimulate a movement large enough to put the welfare of our children first. Time and effort go into combating specious arguments about parental rights and family values or into the politicization of an issue so that its resolution is so watered down it is virtually meaningless. But the new year, the new General Assembly and the new millennium offer an opportunity to bring new life to the slogan that's been around for years, "Children are our future."

As a beginning, legislators might look at two issues. One involves a renewal of the Children's Medical Security Insurance Plan (CMSIP), a federally funded program which guarantees health insurance coverage to children who qualify by family income and number in the family. There are estimated to be at least 65,000 children in Virginia living in homes with a family income that disqualifies them from Medicaid benefits but is not sufficient to permit the purchase of private health insurance. In addition, there are upwards of 35,000 children who can get help through Medicaid, but who are not presently enrolled. The task is to get the word out and those eligible signed on.

Unfortunately, there has been little success to report so far and the Department of Social Services does not know what more it can do. Other than placards on the backs of city buses and one billboard near Gilpin Court, I am not aware of other efforts, such as TV or radio spots, aimed at that population in this area of the state. Is this a case of not enough money or not enough will?

A second issue the administration and legislators need to consider involves the child-care subsidies that are available to parents who have moved from welfare to work but who do not earn enough to pay for the child care they must have. A problem arises when a person comes to the end of the one year's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding. A parent then becomes eligible for child-care assistance under a different funding source, but the demand for those funds has been so great that some localities have run out of money. This has resulted in some Henrico households receiving notice that their child care would be terminated at the end of the month. Now the parent has the choice of looking for lower-cost accessible child care, which may or may not be available, or of returning to public assistance so she can be at home with her child until more money is appropriated. And if staying home is her only alternative, she then may face going through the whole process again — the search for job and for child care — with no assurance that the money won't stop again.

Both issues need to be resolved. Since CMSIP is up for renewal our legislators need to opt for continuance and, hopefully, will look closely at what adjustments would improve the service, as well as what new initiatives are being considered for getting the benefit to those who are entitled to it.

As for the subsidies for child care, we need to mandate that all necessary dollars are available so that a person who is employed but no longer eligible for TANF money won't face a cutoff of the funds that are making it possible for him or her to remain off public assistance. The present policy is inconsistent and seriously undermines the goal of self-sufficiency. We seem to be saying that once the year of support which TANF provides is over, it's sink or swim..

Both issues illustrate Virginia's tendency to do something, but not enough to cover a need. It's a Band-Aid approach to public policy. And both issues illustrate the flaws inherent in confronting the interests of our children on a fragmented, crisis basis; a problem is never fully resolved. It keeps popping up as events catch the attention of the media, child advocates and/or parents.

So, back to the original question: How are Virginia's children doing? Obviously not well enough to claim bragging rights. Virginia needs to be willing to make a commitment to our children, which will move them from birth toward productive, self-fulfilling adulthood. We must realize how connected we all are to the quality of life we offer our children — all our children. They truly are our future, and what that future holds for all of us depends in large part on our attitudes and actions for children today. How exciting it would be if some legislator introduced a bill in the 2000 General Assembly to create a Department for Children that would integrate what we know about the needs of children with the resources and commitment to "leave no child behind." Now that would make a great beginning for the new millennium, for our children, for you and for me!

Peg Spangenthal has been associated with early childhood education and child advocacy for more than 30 years.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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