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Children and Violence

Who Will Speak for Our Children?

Dorothy G. Singer and Ellen A. Wartella

Our children are our future. While candidates on the local and national scene campaign for office, we are waiting to hear a voice, loud and clear addressing the many issues related to children. Children do not vote, and although there are educational, daycare, health, media and juvenile court concerns, among others that affect their lives, there is no national figure who acts as a spokesperson for our children on a daily basis.

There are millions of good Americans with a social conscience who try to effect changes in the lives of children. These include the mothers who urge more legislation dealing with guns, or the mothers who have been waging a steady war against drunken drivers, or the excellent work of such organizations as the Children's Defense Fund, or the many people around the country who work in social agencies, or as educators, or as pediatricians to help our children. But is there one group or person within our government whose role is to integrate and highlight for the political leadership and the nation the needs and plight of children?

The report, Ready to Learn: A Mandate for the Nation issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that in l991, 35 percent of the nation's children were not ready for school. Little has changed since then. Deficits were found in language skills, emotional maturity, general knowledge, social confidence, moral awareness and physical well-being. Although the report recommended that parents read to their children and work with them on teaching letters, words, and numbers, 60 percent of parents did not tell their children stories. Five years later, the National Center for education statistics found that only 57 percent of American families read to their 3 to 5 -year-olds every day. Many of these parents have problems with literacy themselves and are not being served by our nation. Less that 0.05 percent of all children from 0 to 21 who have developmental delays receive any federally funded support. In addition, there is a desperate need for more quality and affordable infant and toddler care in this country as more women enter the work force. Who will speak for our children?

Not only is education an issue, but health care is a major concern. Despite the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-Chip) aimed at children whose family income is at or below the 200 percent poverty line, when we look at the figures issued by Centers for Disease Control, we find that in 1997, 10.7 million children under age 18 had no health insurance with Hispanic children less likely to have health insurance than white, Non-Hispanic or black children. Just this week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that in one of our states, Texas, one in four children live below the poverty level and 36% of them have no health insurance.

This means that many American children are not receiving physical examinations, preventive interventions and education, screening and immunization as well as sick care. Considering that we’re the richest Western nation this is untenable.

When we consider the violence in our society directed towards children, American children under age 15 are 12 times more likely to die from gunfire than children in 25 other industrialized countries combined. In 1999, 4205 children were killed by gunfire - one every two hours, nearly 12 every day. Yet, where is the national voice that protests the availability of guns in our society?

Just last week in West Palm Beach Florida, a grand jury indicted a 13 year old boy for the shooting murder of his teacher. Under Florida law, he will be tried as an adult and if convicted he faces life in prison without parole. This is not an isolated incident. There are more than 460 juveniles in adult prisons and more than three dozen of them are there for murder. According to an April report from the Department of Justice, during the 1990s there was an unprecedented change in treatment of juvenile crime, with all but three states reducing protections for juveniles, expanding the eligibility of processing juveniles in criminal courts and reducing confidentiality protections. And this occurred even though juvenile crime overall has gone down in the latter part of the 1990s. There is no evidence that these laws either deter juvenile offenders or improve public safety.

This is the larger context of the well -publicized events of school shootings. Most public discussions of juvenile crime, have focused on gun control and the widespread evidence of violence on television, in films, videogames, rap music and other media, and children's learning about aggression from these media. Yet, who is speaking out against a culture that both saturates children's popular media with violence and then treats our children as adults before the criminal bar? Who is the advocate for these lost children?

We are recommending a federal ombudsman who will be a bipartisan figure and will head a commission to serve children. This person must speak out continuously about the many children's issues and remain steadfast in his or her resolve to keep such issues before the public and before Congress and our next President.

Dorothy G. Singer is Co-Director of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center. Ellen A. Wartella is Dean, College of Communication, The University of Texas, at Austin.
[Reprinted with Permission]

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