''It's an opportunity for people who are not policy experts to take a look at how their communities are caring for children,'' Helen Blank explains. ''We're asking, 'What's life like for families and children since the federal budget cuts?' ''
Ms. Blank is the director of Child Watch, a just-launched collaborative effort of the Children's Defense Fund, a national public charity, and the Association of Junior Leagues, an international women's volunteer organization. Child Watch, which begins this month in six major US cities and is expected to be joined by volunteers in other localities as word of the program spreads, is designed to help individuals and groups of citizens monitor the effects of federal and local policy changes in such areas as day care, subsidized food programs, and foster care and adoption services.
At a time when 45 percent of children under age 6 are growing up in one- and two-parent families where all parents in the home work, child care has become a national concern. It's an especially important service for low-income and teen-age parents, and for parents of handicapped children. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of all preschool children and 60 percent of school-age children will have mothers in the labor force by 1990.
As the need for child care increases, however, federal assistance is on the decline. The budget-cutting Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981 dramatically changed the basic laws governing many federal programs, and hundreds of thousands of families have lost benefits, with scores of services and programs cut back or eliminated.
What do all these figures and projections mean to a working mother in Birmingham, Ala.? Has she moved her children to cheaper and lower-quality child-care programs? Is she considering returning to the welfare rolls because she's being penalized too heavily for working? Those are some of the questions Child Watch hopes to answer.
This month teams of volunteers in Birmingham and five other cities will begin interviewing community leaders, program administrators, children's advocates, and religious leaders, asking the following kinds of questions:
* How do you monitor child-care programs to ensure that they are meeting state or local standards?
* Are there any particular programs designed to help keep families together that have had to reduce their services or shut down?
* To what extent are child-care services available for low-income families?
* Are more families reporting that they are running out of food before the end of the month? How long before the end of the month?
* Have you lost your child-care arrangements because of government budget cuts? How long did it take you to locate your former child-care arrangements? Why is child care important to you?
* What do you think are the greatest areas of unmet child-care needs in this community?
''The people we've already interviewed have been very receptive,'' says Pam Corckran of the Baltimore Junior League. ''They wanted to share all the information they had, and were excited about the possibilities for the project.''
Mrs. Corckran, a former child abuse investigator, helped to test a pilot Child Watch program in Baltimore last fall. She says she went into the interviews with an open mind and few preconceptions.
''If we had started out with a negative attitude, that this was an anti-Reagan thing, we wouldn't have gotten the same response,'' she explains. ''But I don't think any of us are looking at Child Watch as a way to prove that somebody is wrong. We're simply trying to pinpoint the needs in our communities, and then bring our communities closer together to pitch in and help out with those needs.''
The Child Watch team in Baltimore is already doing some pulling together. As volunteers continue to canvas their communities, asking questions about child care, child health and welfare, and Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the Junior Leaguers are being joined by members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a national professional black women's organization.
Says Doris Reese, a retired nurse and AKA member, ''We haven't had this kind of relationship with the Junior League before, and we're really looking forward to the project. For too long, we've all been going our separate ways, but child welfare affects all races.''
For the next nine months Child Watch teams will be monitoring children's and families' services in Birmingham, Ala.; Hartford, Conn.; Wichita, Kan.; Baltimore; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Pittsburgh. National organizations that have already joined the project include: Church Women United, United Methodist Women, the Lutheran Church of America, the YWCA, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Association for the Education of Young Women, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Southern Rural Women's Network, and the Council of Jewish Federations.
A Child Watch manual that provides background information on such complicated federal programs as Title XX funding and Aid to Families With Dependent Children , is available from the Children's Defense Fund, 1520 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20044.