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Caring for troubled children

TROUBLED children wander city streets in the United States, fill cells in detention centers, and spin off from families racked by alcoholism and violence. As a five-part series, ``America's troubled children,'' beginning in today's Monitor points out, many of these youngsters, some 2 million a year, end up as wards of the state. They get care of a sort, administered by a system. State-provided foster care often means itinerancy, bouncing from home to home. Institutionalized care is often tantamount to prison. In many sections of the country, children are still held in adult jails.

The system fails these children because their needs defy any ``system.'' Some of the experiences assembled by writer Cheryl Sullivan and photographer Robert Harbison show that caring adults, sometimes parents who refuse to abdicate responsibility, are able to reach troubled or neglected children and open the way for progress. Self-evident as it may seem, that's a fundamental need: committed, unselfish individuals willing to invest time and patience in helping children.

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Court-appointed advocates for children and volunteer staff at community-based homes for troubled kids - these are a couple of the many avenues for people who want to help. But volunteerism has to be accompanied by other steps:

Reassessment of our public priorities. True, this is an era of pinched budgets. But efforts to steer youngsters away from habits and attitudes destructive to themselves and to society should be very low on the trimming list. Preventive programs like instruction in homemaking and child-rearing for young mothers, preschool for disadvantaged children, and job training for teens save money in the long run. And more funds have to be channeled into staffing agencies that deal with children.

Emphasizing the family. Whenever possible, children should be reunited with their families. That bond has proved strong even under incredible stress. Heavy-handed state intervention, based on an assumption of parental neglect, is destructive. In many cases, however, children must be removed from a violent home setting; in others, ``home'' is simply nonexistent - for instance, the abandoned babies of addicts.

Providing community-based rather than institutional care. Thousands of group homes - drawing on private donations, church and foundation grants, and public funds - have sprung up in the US. Research is still scanty, but anecdotal evidence indicates that these smaller, more intimate settings do a significantly better job of helping kids than highly regimented state-run institutions.

The social costs of failing to address the problems of troubled youth are clear: continued drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, crime. Many people seem to favor ``get tough'' approaches, including more jail time for youngsters who break laws. Anything less is spurned as soft-headed. But it cannot be forgotten that street kids and delinquents are in fact children. Discipline and firmness are necessary, but they need a broader context of tangible caring.

Caring is the crux. The young people wasting away in inadequate foster care, on city streets, or in cells are too easily forgotten by those with busier, more prosperous lives.

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