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Children's Services board would help entire county

On Nov. 6, Pasco voters will have the opportunity to create a Children's Services Council. This referendum offers the community a challenge to come together and support efforts to enhance sorely needed services for children and their families. Should this referendum be successful, money would be raised to help children in our county. Decisions about how the money would be used would be made by a local board. Let us look at some startling statistics about Pasco children. More than 20 percent of them live below poverty level. Approximately 3,500 children received Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1988. More than 2,800 were referred to the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) due to abuse and neglect in 1988-89; that is up from 2,200 the period before. The school dropout rate is high: 933 of 31,619 students left school. All these problems are increasing at a time when resources are shrinking.

Three thousand criminal charges were filed in Pasco County against juveniles last year; teen-age pregnancy is on the rise; homelessness for families is increasing. Services for meeting so many of our children's needs are stretched to the limit and beyond. Waiting lists for current services are long. Many needs are not met at all.

It is painful for any of us to face the facts about our children in Pasco County, in Florida and in the nation. I am not going to suggest that a Children's Services Council would solve all problems for children in the county. But it would allow significant resources through the referendum to address issues for children on a case-by-case basis. Frankly, the federal and state governments are unlikely to provide additional resources beyond what they are providing. We have to be concerned about government cutbacks. Not meeting needs for our children will fall directly on our community, and we as members of this community must take responsible steps to assist in resolving those needs.

Specific efforts, among others, that could be supported through this council would be foster-home crisis and intervention to provide counseling to emotionally disturbed children and their caretakers. In 1988-89, 164 children were placed in foster care.

Mental health and crisis intervention would provide families and children with in-home family services. This well might reduce the number of children going into an already overloaded foster-care system.

Teen-parent programs could be expanded. There were 424 births to teen-agers last year _ some to those under 15. Efforts on their behalf could include parenting skills, education and job training.

No one can argue the need to enhance our services to the children of this community. I believe the Children's Services Council would address a significant number of problems facing youth and their families in Pasco County. We would pay a far greater price if we neglected these concerns.

There are two issues with the referendum. One is to create a Children's Services Council. The other is whether the community will make a decision locally to deal with its problems. State and federal governments are targeting commitments to social programs due to budget reductions. They are making it clear that communities increasingly will have to find their own resources to address local needs. None of us can isolate ourselves from community concerns. Needs can take many forms _ medical care, housing, food and education.

As a public health physician, I know that if we focus on prevention the long-term cost to the community is much less. If we can provide drug and alcohol treatment programs for youth, we can resolve their need to commit crime to support illicit habits. Their health problems would be reduced enormously.

If we can keep identified neglected and abused children in their homes with adequate supervision, counseling and follow-up care, costs relating to courts and foster placement would be reduced substantially. The prevention of disrupted family life could be accomplished. When children must be placed in foster homes, more facilities and staff could be available to meet this need. When we do not adequately provide these services, the community pays a heavy price _ increased crime, neglected health needs and increased pressure on an already overworked social service system.

What would the Services Council cost us? Take the assessed value of your house, subtract the $25,000 exemption, then add the remainder at 50 cents for every $1,000 left. That represents the maximum millage for this referendum. In reality, use 10 or 15 cents when figuring, because that is the proposed start-up assessment. Under the 15-cent rate, the owner of a $40,000 home would pay $2.25 per year. At the maximum assessment of 50 cents per $1,000, that homeowner would pay $7.50 per year.

Is this taxation without representation, as has been suggested? I am not aware of plans to send the money to England or anywhere else. It would go to Pasco County. I will vote for the Children's Services Council. Issues that can be addressed with the money raised would affect the direction many of children and their families take.

The council also would ease our burden as a community in dealing with crime, joblessness, mental illness, health costs and counseling. There still would be community problems, even with the passing of this referendum, but there would be fewer of them.

Dr. Marc Yacht is director of the Pasco County Health Department.

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