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Services for children labeled inefficient

Emilio weighed 3 pounds, 5 ounces at birth.

His teen-age mother didn't get any prenatal care until she was five months' pregnant, and then saw a doctor only four times because she was a migrant worker who could not afford to leave her work in the fields.

Emilio is just one of many children lost in a maze of federal help programs, according to a 1991 study by the Florida Developmental Disabilities Planning Council.

Susan, age 4, was diagnosed as having amblyopia (one weak eye) through a Head Start screening. The government Medicaid program helped pay for treatment, but the nearest doctor accepting Medicaid was 50 miles away.

Joe, 3, lives with two sisters and their mother in a converted utility shed behind his grandmother's house. The shed has electricity but no running water. His mother gets a monthly welfare check of $346. She says she has delayed going to work because she didn't know a government program could provide day care for her children.

A conference of parents from across the country concluded this week that a broad array of government programs are poorly connected to each other and to the people they are supposed to help _ young children.

Surgeon General Antonia Novella asked hundreds of parents from all walks of life for advice about how government programs are working, and how they could work better.

Along with health and education officials, the parents searched for ways to get America's children "healthy and ready to learn" _ one of President Bush's six national educational goals.

In a speech to the conference Monday, Bush said "parents, families and communities are the key" to his education plan. "Our great challenge is to keep what works and reform what doesn't work."

Parents found plenty that doesn't work for their children. In a report to the surgeon general on Wednesday, they described a bureaucratic patchwork with too much red tape and too little emphasis on helping people become independent of government programs.

Attempts at efficiency by the departments of Agriculture, Education and Health and Human Services got only modest marks from the parents. They suggested:

"One-stop shopping," where parents could apply for all government assistance programs with a single application.

"Family support networks," so parents within a community could help other parents look after their children.

Better directories of available resources, with phone numbers parents could call.

Routine feedback from parents, so officials could get a better idea how individual programs are working.

Most, but not all, of the delegates also complained that the government also needs to spend more money on children.

But Georgia Pappas of Tarpon Springs does not share that view. She believes duplication of services wastes money. "There shouldn't be anybody falling through the cracks," she said.

Pappas was chosen as a delegate to the conference partly through her job at Tampa's Family Network on Disabilities and partly because of her own personal experiences. She has a 4-year-old daughter with Down's syndrome. Although she has heard "some really bad stories from some of the rural areas, I think in our area (Pinellas County) the system is there and the funds are there. It just needs to be more efficient."

If you would like more information on the Surgeon General's Healthy Children, Ready to Learn conference, contact Florida's delegation coordinator, Annette Townsend, at (904) 488-2834.

If you have immediate questions about child development or available services, call the Directory of Early Childhood Services at 1-800-654-4440. Native language operators are available for many languages.