Our most vulnerable children

If children are the future, then the future for the farmworkers in the United States will be filled with perpetual trouble.

The overwhelming majority of migrant and seasonal farmworker children in agricultural states, especially in Florida, are under exceptional stress. Among other problems, they lack adequate housing, health care, nutrition, day care and early education.

Unfortunately, the safety net for these children is flimsy at best, and their struggle has yet to grab the attention of most average citizens and lawmakers at any level.

The plight of these kids, who are part of the vast network of families who plant and harvest the nation's bounty, is more than a political and economic issue. It is an ethical issue that few of us acknowledge publicly or privately.

Evidence of our neglect and the numbers speak for themselves. Farmworker organizations, using federal numbers, estimate that of the 3.5 million migrant and seasonal laborers who work in agriculture annually, as many 400,000 children, some as young as 10, work on farms to help their families make ends meet. Some of these children, who must accompany their families to the fields, groves and orchards, work during school hours. Most work after the school day has ended.

With aid from philanthropies, such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, state and county governments and millions of dollars from the federal stimulus package, farmworker advocates have made early education for these children a priority. Many of the children's parents are illiterate, and the consequences are dire. Research shows, for example, that 1 in 10 migrant-worker children completes grade 12, and 45 percent are held back in school.

The Early Head Start program is the key to reversing these trends and bringing a measure of fairness and humanity into these children's lives. Head Start provides a limited number of safe spaces and learning environments for these infants and toddlers.

To accommodate their special clientele, the centers operate eight to 14 hours a day, many seven days a week, including holidays, and they provide transportation. Although staff members are underpaid and overworked, most volunteer beyond regular hours for the sake of the children.

For many farmworker children, the local Head Start center will be the only place where they receive any kind of health care, including inoculations, and social services. Many children learn for the first time that they should brush their teeth after eating.

For all of its efforts, however, Head Start falls short. There are only 450 centers in 40 states, serving about 35,000 children, under one-fifth of those eligible for the program. This translates into long waiting lists and related problems.

Given their low incomes, most documented migrant and seasonal families cannot afford regular child care and do not have relatives to help out. Many undocumented laborers dare not show their faces at a Head Start center for fear of being nabbed by immigration agents.

In both circumstances, the result is that too many families take their children, even infants, to the fields where they are exposed to the natural dangers of farm work — toxic chemicals, heavy machinery, heat and insects. According to the Government Accountability Office, children account for 20 percent of all farm fatalities each year and more than 100,000 injuries.

To their credit, most U.S. growers, for practical and ethical reasons, do not want young children in their fields. Some have set aside property for the construction of Head Start centers. Sadly, a few have faced the wrath of neighbors and business owners who do not want facilities that serve low-income Hispanic children in their communities.

A notable case, reported by the Associated Press, is that of 72-year-old Tennessee farmer James Ellison, who leased land to the government for a center. After hearing about the project, residents marched near Ellison's home, wrote threatening letters and made harassing telephone calls. Finally, Ellison's hay barn was set ablaze. Investigators labeled it a hate crime. No one has been arrested.

Farmworkers are an essential work force, providing us with fresh, inexpensive produce. Yet their children are the poorest and most disadvantaged group in the nation. One way to improve their plight is to adequately fund Early Head Start. Every American who buys produce should take up this cause. It is the ethical thing to do.

Our most vulnerable children 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 5:31am]

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