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Hope, Hurdles Ahead for Children Highlighted at Summit

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WASHINGTON--While media personalities and political, business, and community leaders topped the agenda of last week's "National Summit on Children and Families,'' it was the voices of youths that appeared to stir the strongest reaction from the audience.

"If you give us, the youth, the opportunity, we can be the key to success,'' said Traci Tsuchiguchi, a high school senior from Fresno, Calif., and a member of the executive board of the National Association of Student Councils.

The summit, held here, was the swan song of the National Commission on Children--a bipartisan, Congressionally established panel that drew widespread attention in 1991 when it released an ambitious list of recommendations topped by a $1,000-per-child refundable tax credit. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991.)

The commission's chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller 4th, D-W.Va., described the summit as a "passing of the torch'' from panel members to the federal, state, local, public, and private-sector leaders and activists who hold the power to carry out the panel's vision.

Mr. Rockefeller and others repeatedly saluted Clinton Administration proposals that appear to be in sync with commission recommendations. They cited, for example, aspects of the President's education- and welfare-reform agendas and his plans to fully fund Head Start, boost support for childhood-nutrition and -immunization programs, expand the Job Corps, and launch a national service program.

"Over the next four years, we're going to work our way systematically through the major recommendations of the commission,'' said Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, a summit participant.

Other presenters described numerous projects at the state and local levels that have improved the health of infants, the welfare of children, the motivation of teenagers, and the nurturing power of parents.

Better 'Glue' Needed

A video essay of children describing their efforts to overcome homelessness, family tragedy, and neighborhood violence--and presentations by students whose lives were redirected by mentors and community-service projects--drew the most extended applause.

While demonstrating the power of positive interventions, though, the youths' stories underscored how many of their peers are not being reached.

Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, chronicled rising rates of child poverty, abuse, and exposure to violence that she stressed are not confined to inner-city black children.

Beyond what such data reveal, suggested Nikki Matos, the student president of the teen youth council with the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in New York City, many children's problems go unnoticed because "children won't say what's wrong until you ask.''

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros maintained the President's budget "begins the process of reprioritizing'' what is needed. But David S. Liederman, the chief executive officer of the Child Welfare League of America, argued that what is missing is the "glue'' needed to pull together a national strategy on children.

"We need the President to lay out the plan and then mobilize America behind it,'' he said.

While urging that family policies build on successful local projects and "empower'' communities, others, such as Douglas W. Nelson, the executive director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, noted that turf issues must be overcome.

Audrey Rowe, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Income Maintenance, also cited the need for states to shift from "categorical'' programs to a more cohesive system of providing family services. Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., meanwhile, challenged the federal government to ease regulations that stymie such efforts.

Demonstration 'Overdose'

Dr. David A. Hamburg, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Dr. C. Everett Koop, a former U.S. Surgeon General, also urged that efforts to give children a better start before they enter school integrate education, health, and social services and parent education.

A panel on reforming schools and easing the transition from school to work--which included Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley--also called for comprehensive approaches--such as those being taken in Kentucky--to address issues ranging from equitable funding to school standards to adult mentors.

Summit speakers warned, however, that piecemeal projects that do not address the root causes of such problems as poverty will not work.

"This country has overdosed on models and demonstrations,'' said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the New York Children's Health Project, a health-care program for homeless children. "The challenge is to institutionalize them.''

The meeting, which also addressed the role of the media and the need to promote "responsible'' family behaviors, was scheduled to conclude last Friday with a youth panel and speakers from the White House, Congress, and state and local governments.

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