Next weekend, hundreds will gather outside the Maryland Science Center for a candlelight vigil supporting the World Summit for Children, a gathering of more than 70 heads of state aimed at meeting the health, education and emotional needs of youngsters around the globe.
That Baltimore's vigil is being held at the Inner Harbor, birthplace of this city's renaissance, is richly symbolic of how far we've come and how far we have yet to go in developing the state's most important resource -- its children.
Consider these sobering statistics: Every year, nearly 12 out of every 1,000 infants born in Maryland die before their first birthday; in Baltimore City, death claims almost 19 of every 1,000. More than 7,000 newborns begin life here addicted or otherwise affected by drugs, another 102,000 have no health insurance.
For one in four children living in Baltimore, poverty is a way of life that begins with low birth weight, spotty health care and is often punctuated by abuse, violence and the tragic repetition of the cycle in the next generation. Baltimore leads the nation in teen pregnancies. More than 16,000 youngsters drop out of school each year.
This snapshot of our children comes from "1990: The Status of Maryland's Children," a report funded by the Morris Goldseker Foundation's Child Watch Project. Taken as a whole, these problems appear overwhelming, even unsolvable -- particularly in a period of waning resources.
But money is only part of a pervasive structural deficiency that has more to do with the delivery than availability of help. What's needed, say child welfare advocates, is a preventive approach.
Take the area of foster care. Child Watch estimates early intervention in an at-risk family situation -- one involving substance abuse or other problems -- costs about $3,000 a year. This pays for clinical rehabilitation, job training, literacy and day care while the parent gets help.
More often, though, early warning signs (physical or sexual abuse or problems at school) are ignored until the home situation deteriorates so badly that the child must be placed in foster care -- a far costlier proposition at $15,000 a year.
The unwieldy and archaic system of dispensing help to youngsters requires reform. A step in the right direction was the creation of the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, which seeks to coordinate, restructure and computerize diverse social service agencies in Baltimore City and eight counties.
Our children are growing up in a society increasingly shaped by technological change and new demographic realities. Helping those who need it is no longer simply a moral responsibility. It is a necessity.