An ounce of prevention

December 15, 2006

If the point wasn't clear enough before, last month's spate of violence involving teenagers in Baltimore and Annapolis and the continuing, often fatal involvement of teenagers in the drug trade underscore the need for comprehensive steps to try to keep young people from being caught up in tragic violence - either as victims or perpetrators.

That's one of the reasons a group of prominent local business, child advocacy and philanthropic leaders, through an effort dubbed More for Maryland, are pushing Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley and other public officials to refocus their attention on preventative measures such as enriched early childhood development rather than remediation efforts such as detention and prison.

They are asking that young children become a higher priority for the state, offering them more positive opportunities through a combination of private and public-sector dollars. It's a worthy effort that would serve society well and make fiscal sense, since early intervention saves both lives and money.

The campaign relies on private sector seed money to promote better public investments in keeping kids out of harm's way. Public officials are asked to sign "opportunity compacts" that put at least part of the resulting savings back into effective programs to expand their reach.

Child welfare has been the focus during the first year of operation. Campaign leaders borrowed from a San Diego initiative and brokered an agreement between state and city officials to put addicted parents who have abused or neglected children under the age of five into treatment and reduce the time - from an average of 46 months to 12 months - that the children spend in foster care.

The idea behind the Baltimore Family Recovery Program is to reunite children with their families in a safer environment or terminate parental rights while children are more likely to be adopted and gain stability. Since August last year, 212 custodial parents (with 221 children) have entered the program; 13 parents have graduated by successfully completing treatment and staying clean for three months, and 37 children have been returned to their families. The compact estimates that the state could eventually save more than $4 million in foster care costs with the first 250 kids.

Another beneficial investment would be to double the capacity of after-school programs in Baltimore. They now serve about 24,000 children from grades K-12, which is an estimated one-third of public schoolchildren who come from low-income families. For about $1,000 per child, after-school programs offer a combination of academic, athletic and artistic activities that help youngsters develop skills and talents, connect with caring adults and, ultimately, perform better in school.

It makes a lot more sense to spend $1,000 to stimulate a young child's mind and body than at least $35,000 to keep a wayward youngster locked up. The old adage is true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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