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Holes Seen in Safety Net for County's Children : Social services: Release of UNICEF report on worldwide conditions prompts warnings about local levels of care.


SANTA ANA — Orange County's children may be healthier and better educated than others worldwide, but like the others, they are becoming increasingly deprived of adequate care, housing and family stability, according to local child advocates.

The experts gathered Wednesday to comment on UNICEF's 1991 State of the World's Children report, released simultaneously in New York. The report reiterated goals for the new decade set in September at the United Nations' World Summit for Children that called for an end to mass child deaths and malnutrition, a commitment to universal education, and a multisector plan for action.

Currently, 250,000 children die each week around the world from preventable illnesses. One in three are stunted by malnutrition. More than any other time in recent history, warfare has affected more women and children than soldiers because of bombs dropped in civilian areas, separation and disruption of essential services, said Diane Lichterman, chairwoman for the Orange County Council of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF.

"In Orange County, one of the things we have to do is clean house," she said. "We have kids living in cars and parks. Many of our own kids are not immunized."

Officials said nearly 300,000 children in the county live at or below poverty levels and 70,000 have no steady source of nutrition beyond school lunches or assistance programs. The homeless include 710 children, half of whom are under 5 years old.

Lichterman said one Santa Ana girl asked Santa Claus for a pair of school shoes because she must share her sister's shoes, and as a result can attend school only on alternate days.

In November, the county received unduplicated reports of child abuse or neglect involving 897 families and 1,748 children.

The county has identified 85 youth gangs and 305 teen-age parents on welfare.

"We remain far ahead of the Third World on all such indicators when one looks at today's United Nations report," said John Dombrink, associate professor of social ecology at UC Irvine. "Still, it is hard to take consolation from that when increasing numbers of children each year enter the category of being at risk for less than a healthy and productive life."

For some, the situation is worsening as a result of recent budget cuts. The Laguna Beach Youth Shelter, which offers two-week stays for runaway and abused teens, for instance, is "struggling to stay alive," after its funding was cut, said Brenda Ross of the Community Service Project. Unless the shelter finds $50,000 by June, the teens will be back on the street, she said. In addition, child abuse prevention programs, which elicited 400 reports from Orange County children themselves, have been cut from the state budget.

Alison Armstrong, director of Rainbows to End Hunger of Costa Mesa, said a core group of leaders is forming to create an Orange County Summit for Children in 1991. Nonprofit groups, businesses and corporations, government and religious leaders need to cooperate in identifying county goals to ensure the protection of children.

Despite the dire financial outlook, advocates see hope in the attention showered lately on children, teens and families.

Congress, for instance, passed more child-focused legislation in the last session than at any time in the last 20 years, including a $22.5-billion child-care bill, an expansion of Medicaid to reach more poor families, and a broadened Head Start program, according to the Christian Science Monitor. It even raised its appropriation for UNICEF by $10 million to $75 million.

In addition, the impending success of a 10-year effort to immunize 80% of the developing world's children by the end of 1990 has "given the world new hope by showing what can be achieved when the international community commits itself to a great endeavor," according to the UNICEF report.

Further, UNICEF's 1991 report says many of the most effective solutions for cutting malnutrition and infant mortality cost little on a per-capita basis. A 2-cent Vitamin A capsule, for instance, could be used to prevent blindness in 250,000 children each year. Low-cost technologies, such as oral rehydration salts, antibiotics, growth charts, iron tablets and family planning services, need to be universally available.

Beyond money, "what is required is a communications revolution for the poor," UNICEF leaders said.

Lichterman said that in addition to building a constituency for children, "we're starting a grass-roots ratification campaign " for the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees all children the right to survival, development and protection. So far, the White House has not signed the treaty, preventing it from continuing to the Senate.

Though the White House attributes the delay to "technical problems," it is widely assumed that its reservations on abortion are key. President Bush has also cited the rights of some states to execute minors.

"I have to think he will not abridge state's rights," Lichterman said. "I'm not sure I want to be led by someone who wants to execute 14-year-olds."

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