Where's the Kids' Governor?

SARA ENGRAM

October 03, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

This country has 50 "education governors," 50 "economic development governors" and probably 35 "environmental governors." But has anyone yet heard of a governor who wanted to be known as the "child welfare governor," much less the "foster care governor"?

That observation comes from Charles Bruner, a former Iowa legislator who now runs the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines. He uses it to highlight the gap between rhetoric about the importance of every child to the future of the country and the reality that children never make it very high on the public agenda. Americans, he notes, usually think about the child welfare system as "in crisis" and "under siege," if they think about it at all.

Well, she's not a governor, but as the nation's top law enforcement official -- and one of the stars of the Clinton cabinet -- Attorney General Janet Reno carries a lot of clout. So it's both startling and refreshing to hear her describe herself as "the attorney general who talks about children instead of locking people up."

As Americans try to figure out how to deal with random killings on the nation's highways and the host of other violent atrocities that seem to haunt the headlines, Janet Reno offers no simplistic solutions. More police will help and gun control -- especially disarming impulsive adolescents -- is crucial.

But to audience after audience she stresses that the real solutions lie in the big picture, in the lives of children who grow up with no notion of how to fit into a safe, lawful, orderly society.

"Until we focus on children, we will never be able to build enough prisons 18 years from now," the attorney general said in a recent meeting with journalists.

Teen pregnancy, neglected health needs, homes and neighborhoods where children regularly witness brutality, educational systems that close their doors at 3 in the afternoon, business attitudes that discourage parents from spending time in schools or community activities -- all these factors have contributed to the decay of the community and family supports that young people need in order to grow up whole.

Last weekend, Dr. Hope Hill, a Howard University psychologist and member of the District of Columbia's Youth Trauma Team, spent most of Saturday afternoon in a police station. During less than six hours that day, five people were shot -- three fatally -- in one area near Washington D.C.'s Fort Dupont Park. Dr. Hill was trying to decide where to start the team's efforts to defuse the effects of violence on bystanders through immediate counseling and an offer of follow-up help.

The wounds from those shootings weren't limited to the physical ones. In a larger sense, seemingly random attacks kill the notion of childhood itself. In its place is a combat zone, where life is cheap and the basic assumptions of safety and sanity that any child needs for healthy development are merely fantasies.

In our cities, 5-year-olds can be shot on the way to school, 4-year-olds are afraid to play outside, and parents in some buildings insist that their children sleep on the bottom of bunk beds to lessen the chances of catching a bullet that might whiz through the walls. Even more frightening, the guns are often fired by other children, the 14- or 15-year-olds who have no reason or encouragement not to participate in a culture of violence. Those children suffer the consequences, even if they never have a physical wound.

As Dr. Hill points out, violence changes the context of the relationships that are most essential to our lives. Children rely on parents to protect them, but in these conditions no parent can guarantee a child's safety. What does that failure tell a child? What does it do to a parent's heart?

This has further consequences for society, Dr. Hill says. When children can't trust the world around them, they cannot form the stable bonds that make families, friendships or societies possible. When conflicts arise, they solve them impulsively, and that usually means violently.

Dr. Hill notes another sinister effect of the random violence that plagues cities like Washington and Baltimore. It destroys the sense of ritual that is important to communities. When a Saturday afternoon football crowd becomes simply another target for young gunslingers, one of the revered pastimes of American life is threatened.

The attorney general is right -- more jails can't protect us because we can never build enough.

What we need is more federal officials, members of Congress, governors, legislators, mayors and council members willing to address some basic questions about the needs of children. Then maybe we'll get the kind of action that will save not only our children, but our society as well.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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