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Human-Services Programs Seen Failing To Address Poor Children's Varied Needs

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By Deborah L. Cohen

WASHINGTON--Many children are not getting the help they need because existing human-services programs are out of sync with the "interconnected" problems and needs of poor families, according to a study released here last week.

"Most public institutions and programs today isolate and react rigidly to a narrowly defined need, ducking problems that do not fall neatly within their jurisdictions," the report concludes.

The study is the product of an "executive session on making the system work for poor children" convened by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The group, which began meeting in 1988, included directors of state social-service agencies, program directors, academics, state legislators, children's advocates, and school administrators representing a wide range of disciplines and political views.

Among its 26 members were Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent of the San Francisco public schools; Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Associ- ation; David Ellwood, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School; and Lisbeth Schorr, a lecturer in the department of social medicine at the Harvard University medical school.

The panel concluded that the education, health, and social-services systems often fail to recognize and address the connections between children's physical health or success in school and the stresses they face in their families or communities.

For example, it noted, a teenager's failure in school may be related to a family conflict, home responsibilities, or parents' illiteracy, and a child's diarrhea may stem from an emotional crisis or unsanitary housing conditions.

Human-services agencies fail to perceive these links, the report states, because "too often services are driven by legislative, funding, professional, and bureaucratic requirements rather than by the needs of children and families themselves."

'Flexibility and Discretion'

The report calls for a restructured system that is preventive in nature, comprehensive, accountable, offers continuous support, and honors "the dignity and authority of families."

It also urges that stops be taken to give service agencies and program directors, as well as social workers, counselors, teachers, and health-care workers, greater "flexibility and discretion" in identifying and responding to the problems of children.

One option, it says, is to "decategorize" programs by allowing agencies to pool and coordinate funds for such services as child welfare, foster care, Chapter 1, maternal and child health, and Head Start.

Making the system more cohesive, said Richard Weissbourd, a research fellow at the Kennedy School who was the report's principal author, would entail giving teachers and social workers "the skills and support they need to deal with a wider range of problems" than they are now trained to handle-or at least equipping them to refer children to other service providers."We in education have to come to understand poverty and what the implications of poverty are," said June Collins Rimmer, an Indianapolis principal who served on the panel.

Such an understanding would aid in "diversifying instructional strategies" to meet the needs of poor children, she added.

Instead of gauging success tbzough such criteria as the number of times workers make home visits, the report calls for "new and better ways of measuring program effectiveness and of holding administrators and workers accountable."

Such measures, it suggests, could include benchmarks for reducing the rates of infant mortality, school dropouts, and teenage pregnancy.

The report, which cites several model interventions, also makes the case that more riscally conservative communities could link together existing programs, tap volunteers, or forge private-public partnerships to bolster service delivery.

Copies of the report, "Making the System Work for Poor Children," are available for $5 each from Frank Hartmann, executive director, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, 79 John F. Kennedy St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

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