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County cannot prosper without helping children

It's almost midnight and your husband has come home drunk and started beating up on you and your three small children. Where can you flee? If you live in Hernando County, you might wind up sleeping on the floor of an office building, because there's no "safe house" for abused spouses and children.

You're the 12-year-old daughter of a low-income single mom whose live-in boyfriend has been abusing you sexually. He has been arrested, but the mental pain and confusion you feel remains. Where do you go for professional help?

If you live in Hernando County, there is nowhere to turn for the kind of long-term counseling you need.

This is the kind of suffering that many Hernando County children must endure each day. One child in four lives in poverty here, which means he is likely to go without the proper nutrition that will help him develop his mind and body. And because that child will not crack the waiting list for subsidized day care, his mother will not be able to go to work. It's a frightening combination, one that too often leads to juvenile crime, substance abuse, failure in school _ and incarceration as an adult.

If only we could reach these children early and get them off to a healthy start so they do not fall hopelessly behind those fortunate enough to be born into more affluent homes.

Indeed, we can. We can start Nov. 6 by voting to create a local Children's Services Council.

The council would determine which services are needed and whether there is duplication of services in existing programs. Its 10 members would be constant advocates for a segment of our population that has been ignored for so long in a state that spends less on social programs than virtually any other. The council would have the power to assess up to 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. With the homestead exemption, that comes to $12.50 a year for the owner of a $50,000 home. That is a small price to pay to help children who are suffering and to give them an even shot at success.

The concept of a Children's Services Council is not new. Pinellas County residents voted 80 percent in favor of one 45 years ago, and in September voted 2-to-1 to double their tax commitment, so satisfied they were with the work being done with their money.

To many people, the council's initial goal might sound nebulous and bureaucratic: "assess needs." The truth is, with 25 percent of the county's children living in poverty, juvenile arrests doubling that of the state average and school disciplinary problems rising, the needs are so great that the main goal must be to decide which crisis must take priority.

Other people say, "It's too soon to start such programs. The need isn't really all that bad, so let's wait five years or so." The truth is, the needs are already monumental, they are bad, and it takes time to get programs rolling, so action must be taken now.

Then there are those who say, "We have plenty of services, so why add more?" The truth is, there are some services, but they are so scattered through different sources that people in crisis don't know where to look, much less have the time to find them. A Children's Services Council will not only fill in the gaping holes in local services, it also will be a referral service for existing agencies.

At the bottom of the barrel are those selfish people who say, "Why should I pay? There's nothing in it for me!" The truth is, healthier babies, self-confident children and mentally stable young people are the foundation for an enjoyable, safe society. In blunt terms, the angry, frustrated youth who feels the world has turned its back is the kind of person who breaks into homes.

Some critics say the backers of the Children's Services Council haven't sold the idea adequately to the community _ as if people who care about children should have to turn handsprings to win support.

Recent events in this county make it all too clear that there are troubled young people who need long-term, professional help. Children are in need; the remedies cost money. Hernando County cannot afford to vote against this necessary program.