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Orange County Voices : COMMENTARY ON SOCIETY : U.N. Year of the Family an Occasion to Re-Examine Priorities : The core of our social structure deserves more community and public-policy support, especially in overcoming such scourges as child abuse and gang violence.

October 02, 1994|DELORES WARDELL and SUZANNE DARWEESH | Delores Wardell is vice president of the Orange County chapter of the United Nations Assn. and chairwoman of the Orange County committee for the International Year of the Family. Suzanne Darweesh is co-chairwoman of the committee.

The Children's Summit, which took place Sept. 25 at Orange Coast College, focused our attention once again upon children and families and communities. Perhaps the United Nations should declare every year an International Year of the Family until we get our priorities straight.

Families form the basic unit of society. When a society is cohesive, law-abiding and productive, the source of its strength can invariably be traced to the strength of its families. If families are in trouble, then communities are also in trouble.

The United Nations International Year of the Family (UNIYF) has as its goals to engage in efforts on a local level that would strengthen families, to promote better relations between the public and private sectors and to work to change public policy that does not make children and families our priority. We need to enable the family to fulfill its function as the source of emotional, financial and material support essential for the well-being of its members.

The Board of Supervisors, in its first annual report on the state of Orange County children, noted the progress made in education--test scores, dropout rates (with the exception of Latinos, whose dropout rates have increased)--while simultaneously pointing out increases in three very important areas: poverty, child abuse and gang membership. Studies show that child abuse is cyclical; perpetrators are most likely victims of child abuse themselves.

How to break the pattern? How to teach parents better techniques of parenting? How to discipline without anger, without violence? We salute the sponsors of various parenting classes throughout the county, but we believe they are insufficient to meet the need and don't reach all those who could benefit from parental training. Shouldn't classes in marriage preparation and parenting be required for graduation from high school? Isn't it a fact that the high divorce rate has a profound and permanent effect upon children?

Families are shattered every day by the impact of violence. It is done through intimidation, force, exploitation, subjugation, humiliation or ridicule. Its results are often expressed silently, through fear and isolation. Its consequences: a society of individuals preoccupied with survival rather than creativity.

Don't increasing levels of violence in our community indicate a need for teaching conflict resolution in the schools, beginning at the elementary level?

Perhaps classes in conflict resolution should be offered in the evening for parents as well. We know also that television violence affects families; why can't we do something about it? Spousal abuse is finally receiving more attention. How can we foster more egalitarian relationships between men and women based upon mutual respect, both in the workplace and the home?

What can be done about the rapidly escalating membership in gangs by our youth, with its consequent often violent activity? It irritated us to hear preventive measures referred to as "pork" during the recent Senate crime bill discussions.

Yet Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) supported after-school programs. Midnight basketball occupies youth at just that time of day when criminal activity is said to be most prevalent. We have heard Anaheim's police chief stress the need for churches to get involved in after-school activities for youth before they get in trouble. The care and concern of a single person may make the decisive influence in that person's life. Prevention is not only more cost-effective than incarceration, it saves lives!

What has the Orange County UNIYF accomplished in the midst of these great needs? Besides producing a calendar of county events geared to families, three Santa Ana teachers prepared a curriculum of activities to celebrate families, recognizing the diversity and changing nature of families in Orange County. This was distributed among schools, particularly in Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. A religious subcommittee prepared information and suggestions for celebrating families in religious institutions.

From the beginning, "living-room dialogues" were promoted. The program assembles small groups of people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds for discussion of topics aimed at fostering mutual respect and appreciation of one another. Orange County has the distinct advantage of being a microcosm of the United Nations itself. In this era of hate crimes, Proposition 187, homophobia, xenophobia and extremism, there needs to be a movement devoted to understanding, compassion and tolerance.

One of the important goals of the U.N. has been to encourage families to have the courage to express themselves and their needs in decision-making processes. The recent Children's Summit agenda exemplified this principle.

Our UNIYF year will conclude Oct. 23 with United Nations Day, a celebration of the 49th anniversary of the founding of the U.N. Using the International Year of the Family theme, U.N. Day will celebrate families with a family fiesta at Bowers Museum.

Is the work of the UNIYF completed? Not by any means. The importance of children and families cannot exist for just one year. For all of us, the needs of families must guide our everyday thinking and actions.

We have many examples in Orange County wherein public policy does not support children and families. When long waiting lists prevent Phoenix House from helping all the teen-agers in trouble, when there are so few county-funded pediatric clinics for sick children, when street beautification outranks keeping libraries open, and when city and county budget realities reflect that other items remain priorities, we still have lots of work to do.

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