"I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be."
Most of us can sing along with that familiar tune, written by Michael Masser and Linda Creed, and recorded by George Benson and Whitney Houston. And as we watch youngsters graduate this month — be it from grade school, high school or college — we wonder what their futures hold. But what about those in the child welfare system, those whose past and present experiences make their futures dicier than those of their classmates?
If you stop and really think about the words to "Greatest Love of All," you have to wonder if our society's neglected youngsters ever crossed the songwriter's mind. Because far too often, no one's teaching them or listening to them. No one's showing them inner beauty or instilling self-pride. And sadly, their laughter is often in short supply, when it should be among a child's most valuable and treasured resources.
Pick a social ill, almost any social ill. There's a good chance that the victims or perpetrators spent time in the child welfare system, falling under state supervision due to neglect or abuse. According to the Children's Welfare League of America (CWLA), kids who "age out" of the system (at age 18) are more likely to become homeless, more likely to become teen parents, and more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. Children who are abused and neglected are more likely to commit delinquent acts and move on to criminal behavior as adults, and they're more likely to experience a range of mental health, substance abuse, occupational and educational deficiencies during adolescence and adulthood.
During a recent informational luncheon with members of the Washington Association of Black Journalists, CWLA president and CEO Christine James-Brown called for renewed focus. She said there are 1.4 million children in the system overall (in placement or being supervised in their homes), including 460,000 who have been taken away from their family. "We need to invest in children and make sure they move forward," she said. James-Brown noted that children placed in foster care are disproportionately African American (31 percent), because of a combination of factors that include poverty and social workers' cultural perceptions of when a child needs to be taken out of the home.
The disproportionate rate of involvement is particularly high in places. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report found that in 31 states, the percentage of black child victims of maltreatment was at least 1.5 times greater than the percentage of black children in those states. In five of those states (Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming), the percentage of black child maltreatment victims was at least 2.5 times greater than the percentage of black children in the overall population.
James-Brown said the child welfare system "acknowledges its shortcomings" adding that it's "under-resourced and isolated from other systems." She said there are several remedies to address the needs of children and workers in the system: improving support services, understanding and reducing cultural bias, locating more relatives to provide permanent homes, increased use of technology to find parents, increased involvement of parents in planning and decision making, and increased use of community-based institutions.
With so many other issues dominating the national agenda — everything from the economy and the environment to Iraq and immigration — pushing for action on child welfare can seem fruitless. The CWLA has called for Congress to reestablish the White House Conference on Children and Youth, which was first held in 1909 and held every 10 years through 1970. Bipartisan legislation to resume the conference has languished in committee since early last year. The CWLA argues that the conference is important because few other events focus on children and families, and conferences are preceded by a year's worth of state and local events that spark a national dialogue on recommendations to improve the lives of our most vulnerable children and families.
Last month, the Children's Defense Fund issued its "State of America's Children" report. A few years ago, Canada and the United States were tied for last in children's welfare among industrialized nations. This year? The United States is dead last in relative child poverty, in the gap between rich and poor, in teen birth rates, and in child gun violence. "We have to figure out a way to make children a priority," James-Brown said. "We need to focus on outcomes and innovation."
If children really are our future, as the songwriters suggest, we must make a better investment in them; especially those who fall through the cracks into the child welfare system, where there isn't much to laugh about.
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.