Parent Power

SARA ENGRAM

December 01, 1991|By SARA ENGRAM

When the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) gears up its lobbying operation, Congress listens. With 30 million members -- most of whom vote -- AARP has become a major presence in Washington as a watchdog for the interests of the elderly.

Contrast that with the plight of young parents. They have countless woeful stories of losing their jobs after staying home with sick children, being forced into bankruptcy when health benefits run out or simply despairing in the search for decent and affordable day care. But unlike older Americans, parents have not yet found an effective way to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill or at the White House.

That will change if Rosalie Streett has her way. Considering her track record it would be unwise to underestimate Ms. Streett's ability to rise to a challenge.

Five years ago she created Friends of the Family, the organization that coordinates Maryland's network of Family Support Centers. This year, Friends of the Family was one of 10 recipients of the nation's most prestigious award for innovations in state and local government, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The winners were selected from among 1,907 entries.

But Friends of the Family, and the 13 support centers that are bringing stability to many struggling families in lower-income neighborhoods, are on their feet now and can anticipate a stable future. So Ms. Streett was persuaded to turn her attention to the national scene.

The vehicle is Parent Action, a group that aspires to do for parents and families what the AARP has done for the elderly.

Parent Action is the brainchild of pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, along with Bernice Weissbourd, a nationally known family advocate, and Susan DeConcini, wife of Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini.

After a slow start as part of a larger coalition, the organization is now operating independently and, since Ms. Streett signed on as executive director in October, it is quickly gaining its footing. She has moved the national headquarters to Baltimore and is pushing along some promising projects.

As corporations begin to express interest in advertising themselves as "family friendly," Parent Action hopes to take advantage of the profitable market families represent. It plans a number of agreements with corporations that will offer discounts to Parent Action members. For example, an agreement with the Choice Hotels corporation will offer room discounts to members.

Parent Action is also setting up State Parent Action Networks, or SPANs, in each state. They will serve as clearing houses on everything from weekend events families can enjoy together to the latest developments in state and local legislation affecting families. SPANs will begin first in Maryland, Texas, California and Arizona, then expand throughout the country. SPANs will also help Parent Action meet its larger goal of giving parents a political voice that can make a difference.

Dr. Brazelton recalls that when he began searching for a way to create this political voice, he approached George McGovern to discuss to ask why it's so difficult in this country to get support for legislation that would help ease the burdens on families. Mr. McGovern's answer was simple: Parents don't vote -- they're just too tired.

"I thought, they're not too tired, they just don't think it will make a difference," Dr. Brazelton recalls.

Then, during the 1988 election, he traveled with Rep. Pat Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat known in part for her strong support for family issues. Dr. Brazelton says he watched parents flock to their meetings and tell their stories. What happened? Nothing.

Three years later, not even a watered-down family medical leave bill could make it into law. It's hard to imagine that kind of scenario with an issue affecting the elderly, especially when the AARP gears up its formidable lobbying operation.

Berry Brazelton, Rosalie Street and others are betting that when Parent Action's membership grows from its current size of about 8,000 to many millions, opposing legislation that would ease the burdens on besieged families would be as politically dangerous as cutting Social Security benefits.

"It's a shame a country like this needs an organization like this," Ms. Streett says. "Employers keep saying they can't find people to hire. We just don't get it. We don't understand that there's a connection with what we do with those babies and what happens later on."

Parent Action can't solve all those problems. But if you hear enough parents tell of being forced to choose between a job and a sick child, or between keeping their home and paying for a doctor, you know that these middle-class families are searching for a way to be heard -- and that when they find it, politicians will have to listen.

Sara Engram is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The

Evening Sun.

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