Putting Kids Back At Top Of Agenda


January 24, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

All of a sudden children and their welfare are back in our collective consciousness.

Perhaps it was the flap over where Chelsea Clinton would go to school. Perhaps it is because the first lady, Hillary Clinton, is a well-known advocate for children, and some of her positions on children's rights became issues during the presidential campaign. Perhaps it was the recent stories about the two youngsters left alone in Chicago while their parents vacationed in Acapulco.

Or perhaps, here in Carroll County, it was Leslie Hinebaugh's unexpected resignation from her position as the county's child and youth coordinator to protest the commissioners' refusal to make her job a full-time position.

Regardless of the reasons, the public is once again looking at the condition of children in America and is realizing they have been woefully neglected.

Nationally, we are faced with the fact that increasing numbers of children are getting their main meal at a soup kitchen.

Every week brings disturbing news stories involving children. Foster children who are shunted around like stray animals. Young children sexually abused by a parent. Children shot by street thugs.

These horror stories aren't the only barometer that children are neglected. There are some indicators a lot closer to home.

Carroll County has 17,000 children younger than 13, and yet there are only between 4,700 and 5,200 licensed day care slots. Supposing that both of the parents of the remaining 12,000 children work. That means as many as 6,000 children in this county come home to empty homes after school and have no adult supervision.

"Society is neglecting these children," Leslie Hinebaugh says. "Without adults, they get poor care, have poor discipline and poor socialization."

Ms. Hinebaugh, who helped create a successful after-school program that eventually attracted 300 children at West Middle School, says the situation for Carroll teen-agers is even worse.

Parenting has never been easy, but it may be more difficult than ever today. Parents aren't as available as they used to be. There are more households in which both parents work. There are more households than ever headed by one parent.

And, other members of the family -- grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters -- often don't live close enough to shoulder some of the child care duties.

No institutions have been created to fill the void and provide children with a safe haven and adult supervision. The result is a lot of children left to their own devices.

"What do we have for the teen-ager to do? Alcohol, drugs and sex. And people wonder why we have such problems with young people," Ms. Hinebaugh says.

Part of the problem can be blamed on economics. The average house in Carroll County costs about $135,000. To qualify for a mortgage on such a house, a family needs an annual income of about $50,000. That means that, in most cases, both parents have to work.

Another aspect of the problem is politics. Children don't vote. Their parents do, but parents rarely unite over issues involving children. In addition, most adults figure that they take care of the county's children when they support public education.

Another crucial element is seldom addressed, however.

As parents, we say that we value our children. We are willing to sacrifice by giving them more than just the necessities of food, clothing and shelter.

We send them to music, art or horseback-riding lessons. We drive them to sports games and to swim meets. We buy them games, toys, books and other amusements. When they are old enough, we send them to camp and then off to college.

We also give them love, discipline, support, direction and knowledge so when they become adults, they can take their places as productive members of society.

On an individual basis, we gladly make many sacrifices for our children. However, in our roles as members of a larger society, we don't seem willing to make the same sacrifices.

While the county has eight senior centers -- where the elderly can participate in programs, eat a meal or just socialize -- the county does not operate one recreation center where children could take part in the same activities.

I am not saying that the senior centers should be shut in favor of children's recreation centers. I am saying that children should receive similar treatment.

Jolene Sullivan, head of the county's department of citizen services (which runs the senior centers) and a parent of a young child, believes that the narcissistic sentiments of the 1980s, during which the public mood was to follow one's own agenda, are ending.

"We seem to be rediscovering our children," she said. "I go around the county and see a lot of parents responding to programs for children. The PTAs in the schools are thriving. I think people recognize that children are the best resource this country has."

While it may be too early to say that the 1990s will be the "decade of the child," our country has began to rediscover the simple truth that the future of our society rests on the shoulders of our children.

The rediscovery is not particularly insightful, but it represents a welcome start.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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