Hoping to demonstrate the need for Howard County's services for children with serious emotional and mental disorders, local advocacy groups last week took a group of state and county politicians on a tour of area programs.
"This issue is becoming a more critical one for us to address as a community," said Jane Walker, director of the Family Life Center in Columbia and president of the county's Association of Community Services. "We need to recognize that there are a lot of children in Howard County who need services."
The three-hour tour -- the county's first-ever "Child Watch Visit" -- enabled local legislators to talk to children with serious emotional and mental disorders, their parents and the people who work with them in public and private programs.
Organizers of the event -- including the Advocates for Children and Youth Inc., the Association of Community Services and the Council on Children and Youth -- were not seeking new legislation or grant money for any specific program.
Their primary motive was to clear up what they believe are public misconceptions about children with emotional and mental disabilities.
"These are kids who are in every neighborhood and often are terribly misunderstood," Ms. Walker said.
She was referring in part to a dispute within the school system earlier this spring about whether to divide a program for students with serious emotional disabilities between Waterloo and Stevens Forest Elementary schools.
After a heated debate which left parents of the disabled students upset about the way their children had been portrayed, the Howard County school board decided to keep the entire program at Waterloo, limiting its size to 20 students.
From the beginning of yesterday's tour, the organizers emphasized that Howard County has many children with serious emotional disorders. Experts estimate that as many as 5 percent of county children have serious emotional disorders -- an estimated 2,425 of Howard's 48,500 residents under 18.
Among the places visited by the politicians were the Howard County Extension Program at Taylor Manor Hospital, the Rockland Therapeutic Headstart Program and the Children's Guild Inc. program at the Cedar Lane School.
The legislators -- including Del. Frank S. Turner, Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung and Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer -- received a brief introduction dealing with some everyday activities of the students. The politicians' experience even included one recurring problem for students on hot days -- having to ride on a bus with a malfunctioning air conditioning system.
During their stops, they heard several emotional stories from parents and students who have benefited from programs in the county.
For example, Michael David Ryan, 18, proudly talked about how he will be graduating from Centennial High School next week -- after having spent 10 years in residential psychiatric programs. He now lives in Columbia's Vantage Place, which provides support for people with psychiatric disabilities, and works at the Developmental Services Group Inc. in Columbia, a private nonprofit agency that offers vocational training.
"Without these services, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now," he told the politicians yesterday. "It's been very helpful to me."
After the tour, the politicians said they had a better understanding of the county's children with emotional and mental disorders.
"This just shows us how much we need to have services out there for the children," Mr. Turner said. "If we don't do something and do it now for our kids, then it will be too late."