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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Neglected Strays: How to Rescue Our At-Risk Children

Every community has an animal protection agency that picks up stray animals to feed and house them until they are rescued and given a home. Some 15 million five to ten year-old children in America are estimated to be neglected. State child abuse and neglect reporting laws do not specify the age at which a child can be left home alone. Therefore, no consistent community standards exist to describe when and under what circumstances children can be left alone or in the care of other children.

But any teacher can give you a fair estimate of the number of children who go home to a latchkey, single parent home. Many simply don’t go home. They head for the streets. In terms of guidance and basic human care, they are strays. And too often, they are abused emotionally and physically. Who will rescue and protect them?

Stray children often live in an environment where crime is an everyday event. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that crime reaches its peak appeal for kids aged 14 (which is also the peak dropout age) to age 24. About 70 percent of these abused and neglected kids drop out by the 7th grade. They then stand at the brink of illiteracy, poor health, unemployment, crime, and prison.

The fact that they come from low-income homes does not relieve any one of us of the responsibility to provide the guidance and support they need to grow into contributing citizens. The U.S. Constitution declares that every child is a citizen with rights that cannot go ignored. A public school education is one of those rights. The law makes it compulsory.

A Difficult Life is Not Predestined for Any Child in America, and Poverty is Not a Contagious Disease

Americans are a generous people. Whenever catastrophe strikes, Americans answer with food, clothing, and money. Yet, we are ignoring the plight of millions of neglected child citizens. Looking away costs us billions of dollars every year, and it wastes the lives of potentially useful citizens.

Total taxpayer investment in K-12 education in the United States for the 2004-05 school year was estimated to be $536 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which is more than twice the U.S. investment for 1987. This expenditure has been the foundation for the nation’s success and leadership in the world. For our major cities, it is no longer paying off. A substitute method of education has settled comfortably into America’s poor cities. It’s the one that’s taught on the streets. The reward is not a diploma. It’s usually unemployment, ill health, a jail sentence, or an early death.

A family home may not be the anti-toxin it once was. Nevertheless, life for a neglected five-year-old sitting alone in front of a television set in a single-parent home is not predestined. America has won the fight against diseases like polio and smallpox. We can win the fight against failing K-12 education, too.

The High Cost of Doing Nothing to Rescue Stray Children

Add up the costs for neglecting a substantial minority of American children. America is already the world’s biggest jailer with more than seven million people housed in its prisons. For example, the Washington State Institute of Public Policy reports that in 1975, each taxpayer spent $200 to cover his/her part of the criminal justice budget. By 2000, that annual cost had skyrocketed six times to $1,200, even though crime rates have stayed about the same.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, it costs $100,000 to build a new prison cell. It costs $200,000 over 25 years to pay interest on the construction debt and more than $22,000 per year/per cell to operate. Overcrowding is forcing the early release of state and federal inmates back to the streets where they first engaged in crime.

As a taxpayer, you are affected in other ways. Social services for elderly and families with children are cut when state and federal budgets explode from failed criminal justice policies. Such waste can shorten your public library hours, or your access to education and medical care. Property losses through theft and vandalism are soaring. Fear alone of crime and violence is dampening America’s economy.

Of course, the most tragic victims of neglect are the children. Black men are disproportionately the victims of violent crime. In July 2009, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 15.4 percent, compared to 9.4 percent for high school graduates and 4.7 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. According to the Alliance for Excellence in Education, if the high school students who dropped out of the class of 2009 had actually graduated, the nation’s economy would have benefited from about $335 billion in additional income over their course of their lives.

Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, have poor health, live in poverty, be on public assistance, and be single parents. Therefore, they are more likely to produce more neglected children who, in turn, are more likely to drop out of school as well. National leaders keep demanding that schools, communities, and families take major steps to retain students. Yet, the dropout rate remains high and keeps getting higher. Every 29 seconds, another student gives up on school, adding up to more than one million American dropouts a year, or 7,000 every day.

This trend can be reversed. The health of our society can be restored. But it can only be revived if we pledge to do everything in our power to change it.

Proposal: A Program That Matches At-Risk Kids with Successful, Role-Model Teens

Grade school children, no matter how mistreated, respect and listen to teenagers. These inner-city teens were pre-adolescent just a few years before. They experienced the same problems that their younger neighbors must face every day, and in similar conditions.

Too often, the at-risk kids are looking up to the drop out teens managing their streets. But millions of other teens are successful and thriving in school. They would make ideal role-models, providing the kind of relationships that may be beyond the means of a single-parent household.

Unlike Big Brothers Little Sisters, this mentoring program would focus on matching young, troubled children with successful teens. Call it Big Dude/Little Dude Program, Little Kid/Big Kid, or whatever you like. The point is this: the teen will gain poise and self-esteem by helping the younger child mature and the stray child will have someone to live up to. The mentoring teenage girl or boy has an opportunity to realize that great quality of helping and serving that is inside each of us. Call it “applied citizenship.”

Postscript for Such a Program

To qualify for the program, the teen high school or college student would need to maintain a 2.5 grade average. Their teachers must recommend them. A full-time program staff would need to conduct background checks. Each tentative pairing would be monitored for measurable achievements. Other considerations: Is each student able to walk easily to the other student's home and school? Do they have shared interests? Are their backgrounds similar?

After the relationship has been given time to develop, teachers and program staff should see improvements in the younger child’s performance. Attendance, reading and math skills, and involvement in school activities should all be showing improvement. Teachers should be reporting a lift not only in grades, but also in behavior and morale.

Naturally, such a program would have to be supported by a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization fully endorsed and supported by the city’s board of education. Ideally, clubs would organize in the schools to draw participants away from the appeal of gangs and the streets. These clubs must be led by the most respected students in the school. A certified faculty person must serve as club adviser. Parents must be encouraged to participate.

The push provided by mentoring teen parents, teachers, administrators, and counselors is indispensable to achieve this specific goal: to guide drifting children safely through the years that will shape their behavior and that will determine their attitudes toward education and a social life. Much time and effort will be required, but the lives of millions of at-risk children can be saved by a program that works with established institutions with no need to form any new bureaucracy.

This program can rescue stray children from our inner city streets by giving them access to positive relationships that build character, that help self-esteem develop and grow, that empower them to face an unknown future. The home and its spirit must be restored if the public school is to be revived and revised.

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