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California's Child Services Badly Fragmented, Study Finds

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California policymakers have not responded to the changing needs of the state's children, leaving many at risk of slipping through gaps in a fragmented social-services system, according to a new report by a group of independent researchers.

Although most California children are "healthier, wealthier, and better schooled than their earlier counterparts," the report states, a growing number face problems related to changes in family structure, the impact of immigration, and the emergence of a small group of very disadvantaged parents.

The authors of the the report, "Conditions of Children in California," said it represents the first attempt in the state to compile data on a wide range of issues affecting children, including physical and mental health, physical safety, sexual behavior, and academic achievement.

Course Correction

"If the state continues on its present course with present policies, several crucial conditions of California's children will get much worse," said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, which produced the report.

"Our public and private system for producing children's services is so flawed that it has to be rethought and reconceptualized," he said.

Rapid population growth and the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity it has fostered have created new problems for children and compounded existing ones, the report says.

These factors, it continues, also make California's child population "so different from the rest of the nation that federal social-welfare policies are not optimally suited to this state."

At the same time, however, "the well-being of California's children is of increasing importance to the nation," the report states, because one in nine American children is a Californian. If present growth trends continue, it adds, within 10 years one in every American eight children will live in California.

Environmental Factors Key

The 400-page report includes contributions from 26 researchers affiliated with several major universities and medical centers in the state. The $350,000, two-year project was funded by the James Irvine Founda8tion and the Stuart Foundations.

Pace has won plaudits from educators and policymakers for its annual reports on the condition of the state's education system.

The new report was conceived after "it became increasingly apparent to us that it is insufficient to talk about schools unless we also talk about the environmental factors that surround kids," said Julia Koppich, associate director of pace.

Researchers discovered huge gaps in data on problems affecting children, she said, because most state agencies outside of education are not required to compile reports specific to children. The report is intended to serve as a comprehensive resource for policymakers.

Among the report's major findings are:

California's child population, which currently stands at 7.3 million, is expected to grow by 1.5 million in the next 10 years, an increase of 20 percent.

Despite their burgeoning numbers, California's children represent only one-fourth of the state's population, down from one-third 20 years ago.

One in every three Hispanic-American children and two in five Asian-American children live inel15lCalifornia.

The proportion of California children living in poverty increased from 15 percent in 1980 to 23 percent in 1987, and the gap in income between the poorest families with children and other families with children has grown in the past decade.

Almost half of the children in the state will spend part of their lives in a family headed by a single parent.

'Very Different' State

"A lot of people have known about the numbers for a long time," said Ms. Koppich, "but it's still surprising how very different California seems to be from the rest of the country."

For example, she said, the average poor family in the nation is headed by a single mother and receives welfare aid. In California, she said, the average low-income family is more likely to be headed by two working parents who receive little or no public assistance.

As a result, the traditional means of attacking poverty by adjusting the welfare system "just doesn't work" in California, she said.

Although the researchers generally refrained from making specific policy recommendations, they sug4gested that major changes are needed in the delivery of services for children.

Simply spending additional sums on existing programs will not solve the problems, the report's authors say.

California's service delivery system "is like a tire that's beyond patching," said Mr. Kirst.

"You can't even retread it any more," he said. "It's got to be thrown out."

Report's Recommendations

The report recommends that state and local officials:

Concentrate social services at a single site, including public schools, to help to ensure that children are receiving all the aid they need.

Ensure that service providers, including teachers, are made more aware of the interrelated nature of problems that children face.

Collect more detailed information on problems that specifically affect children.

Revise programs designed primarily to address the needs of whites and blacks to reflect the needs of Latino and Asian immigrant families.

Copies of the report, "Conditions of Children in California," can be obtained for $20 by writing pace, School of Education, 3659 Tolman Hall, University of California, Berkeley, Calif. 94720.

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