From the moment of birth, children, through sound or action, have the ability to signal their pressing wants. The crying of an infant informs us of a needed diaper change or feeding; a 2-year-old's temper tantrum signals resistance to our ideas; the spiked, odd-colored hair of the adolescent indicates a shout for attention; and the child having a child, the aching longing for love.
During the first months of 1993, our children have been waving red flags fast and furiously throughout Orange County, seemingly urgently pleading for our response. We have been confronted with abhorrent youth violence. Going to school is no longer a carefree experience where one only has to worry about the day's assignments. It is now complicated by contraband-sniffing dogs on school buses and weapon detectors at school entrances. Graffiti mocks the county's effort to beautify. Even those with their social conscience buried in the sand cannot avoid the evidence of serious problems. They are everywhere, in every city, in every community.
We are a county believing social ills are other county's problems. "Those" things only happen in New York, Miami, Los Angeles. We read about them, but they are very far removed from our social strata. Orange County doesn't have "those" kinds of problems. Oh, really? Let's expel that myth right now. We have "those" problems, all right, and each passing day sees them on the increase. We have a choice to either sit by as observers and mutter about how terrible these kids are today, or to actively and collectively decide to do something to help our children. We are at the crossroads, the tricky part, where we must try to translate the many red flags being waved in front of us into a message that will furnish us clues necessary to reverse trends. But where do we begin?
In 1990, the United Nations World Summit for Children cut right to the heart of the matter when it declared, "The experience of the 1980s shows that it is only through the mobilization of all sectors of society, including those that traditionally did not consider child survival, protection and development as their major focus, will significant progress be achieved."
The publication "What It Takes," issued in 1991 by the Education and Human Services Consortium, a loose-knit coalition of national organizations, describes the pressing need for interagency collaboration and suggests strategies for structuring these partnerships aimed at connecting children and families with comprehensive services.
And California has produced several road maps of its own. A Strategic Plan produced by the state Department of Social Services, the County Welfare Directors Assn. and the Child Welfare League of America (1991), eloquently depicted a vision for the children of California: " . . . that all California's children reach adulthood having experienced a safe, healthy and nurturing environment. The resulting sense of self-worth, coupled with equal access to resources, will empower them to develop their unique potentials, so that they mature realizing a strong sense of responsibility to self, culture and society."
It sounds great--I can't think of anyone who would fault such lofty goals. But has it brought about needed change?
In 1992, a report, "Cutting Through the Red Tape," delivered the recommendations of a series of statewide summit meetings brought about through the collaborative efforts of the California School Boards Assn., the California State Assn. of Counties and the League of California Cities. It too echoed themes similar to the others: prevention, collaboration, partnerships and, most important, the need for communities to pull together in seeking solutions if any significant change was to be accomplished.
When reading these various reports, each the result of arduous labor by some very dedicated people, it is apparent that we really do know what it would take. The big hurdle between that knowledge and fulfillment of needed change seems to lie paralyzed in the "how to."
We've begun to learn who should be sitting at the table and we've begun the process of finding commonality in our agendas. The biggest struggle seems to be "letting go" of the territory so long thought of as "private domain." And working collaboratively requires a whole lot of "letting go."
Some Orange County residents have decided that the time for "letting go" is at hand. With all the talent in the county focusing joint attention on changing the current unhealthful climate for "growing children," one that really does ensure children reaching their full potential is well within the means of the citizenry.
On May 15, the Orange County Summit for Children will begin that process. People from all walks of life who share a concern about the condition of children in our county will be asked to participate in a meeting to be held at Chapman University. The purpose of the day will be to collectively think through what it will take to ensure that our children do have an opportunity to grow to their potential in a safe, caring environment.
But it won't stop there. Participants will be asked to consider making a personal, organizational or community commitment that will help build the bridge between what it will take and its accomplishment. I believe that it takes a whole county to raise a whole child. And like the barn-raising of old, the people in this county are prepared to tackle the task, together. Let the work begin!
DR, B.D. CUMMINGS