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Children's Voice Article, March/April 2004

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

When it comes to assessing the conditions facing children today, many of us working in behalf of children and families tend to see the glass as half empty. Or three-quarters empty. Or even bone dry. But in our zeal to make change for our youth, we often forget we have much to build on, much to be proud of, and much to find hope in.

It's not always easy to draw attention to the positive. Just pick up a newspaper or tune in to the local news to see how often singular negative events or underwhelming statistical patterns are thrust into the headlines and quickly labeled trends. Too often, our own fundraising appeals focus on similar deficits and ongoing challenges facing children instead of providing a balanced message of our successes, our ongoing challenges, and the lessons and tools we apply in our day-to-day practice.

Even those of us at CWLA must work hard to avoid this trap. In recent months, the League's efforts have been devoted to the states' struggle to meet the standards set out by the Child and Family Service Reviews--a topic Children's Voice covered in its January issue. The November issue highlighted teen suicide and the challenges facing the child welfare workforce in coming years.

But good things are happening, too. The teen pregnancy rate declined more than 26% between 1990 and 1999, and in 2001 dropped to 25 births per 1,000 females ages 15 - 17--the lowest rate ever recorded in this country. The birth rate among African American females ages 15 - 17 dropped by nearly half between 1991 and 2001, completely reversing increases from the previous five years.

The poverty rate for children living with family members reached a high of 22% in 1993 and has since decreased substantially, falling to 16% in 2000 and remaining stable since. It's still intolerably high, but we must focus on the reasons for the successes and build on them.

There's plenty more. According to the Child Trends Databank, the percentage of young children who are fully immunized has skyrocketed in recent years, while the percentage of children under 6 with elevated blood lead levels has plummeted. The percentage of births to women who smoked during pregnancy dropped dramatically during the 1990s, from 19.5% in 1989 to 12.0% in 2001. All of these indicators mean that thousands of children have been spared from illness, developmental difficulties, and even death.

But news like this isn't reaching the general public. In fact, Child Trends recently conducted public opinion polls to determine Americans' understanding of the well-being of American children and compared the results with the best available data to assess the accuracy of public perceptions. "Overall, we found that most Americans think that children and youth are worse off than they actually are, and are either unaware of or are discounting progress made during the last decade," the report said. "Most Americans think that things are getting worse for children and youth, even when notable improvements have occurred."

Despite considerable publicity about the decline in the welfare rolls, 74% of the public believes the number of children on welfare has increased or stayed the same since the passage of the 1996 federal welfare law. Similarly, although the teen crime rate is at its lowest level in more than 25 years, 91% of the public believes the percentage of teens who commit violent crimes has increased or stayed the same over the past 10 years. We should inform the public of these decreases, but also identify what must be done to ensure these children are truly better off, which may or may not be the case, regardless of the statistics.

There's a price to pay for a largely negative perception, and it's the public's belief there's no hope for success, we don't know what works, and any new investment in our work would be a waste. Some would say that as long as a single child is suffering, it's our job to publicize that fact. But if children are achieving victories, we must publicize our role in those victories to gain the public's confidence and support.

Some time ago, Michael Paraino, President and CEO of the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association told me his organization's public appeals for volunteers had generally focused on the threat that might come to children without an appropriate guardian ad litem. But after surveying their volunteers, the National CASA Association found that most had volunteered and remained in the program primarily because the work made them feel better about themselves. So the organization modified its public appeal for volunteers to emphasize the potential for rewarding experiences. Maybe there's something to the old song about accentuating the positive after all.

Last month, at CWLA's National Conference in Washington, DC, we took time out to do just that. Author Bob Danzig, a former foster child who went on to become CEO of the Hearst Newspaper Group and Vice President of Hearst Communications, shared stories from his inspirational book Every Child Deserves a Champion, which highlights the ways teachers, coaches, doctors, parents, and people just like you have inspired others to do great things. We also celebrated those individuals who have made those successes possible through our congressional and corporate awards, scholarships to workers in the field, and recognition of children and youth who are making a difference in their communities.

We're all familiar with the cliché about the squeaky wheel getting the grease, but let's not overlook the other wheels that continue to function perfectly well, carrying us forward and bringing new challenges and new opportunities every day.

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