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Mouths of babes fill the air with protest

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

About 300 children squeezed onto the Pinellas County Courthouse steps Thursday waving signs and banners saying "Children Today, Leaders Tomorrow" and "Cuts to Children Never Heal."

They were joined by 80 children's advocates and child care providers who echoed the traditional rally theme of more funding for community child care and after-school programs.

A few providers and Mary Brown, Pinellas County School Board member, and County Commissioners Karen Seel and John Morroni spoke at the rally, which kicked off the statewide Children's Week that begins March 16.

Next week, child care professionals, educators, parents and advocates will visit Tallahassee to remind legislators about the importance of children and family issues.

Before Children's Week, legislators received the One Voice for Children Position Paper that outlined needs of parents statewide.

Those issues include access to prenatal and infant health care, training and education in parenting skills to help build healthy families, high quality child care and early learning opportunities, safe and enriching after-school experiences, and access to delinquency prevention programs and services to treat children with problems.

Some local child advocates are concerned that funding for programs like the new class size amendment will be used as an excuse to shortchange early child care.

"There will be discussions on how that's going to be funded without taking away dollars for existing programs," said Mona Jackson, chair of the Child Care Advocacy Committee of the Juvenile Welfare Board.

Funding to provide quality child care and decent wages for child care workers are key issues, according to Art O'Hara, executive director of R'Club Child Care Inc.

But he worries that funds for after-school programs for school-age children will be cut to support the amendment that will make prekindergarten for 4-year-olds available by the 2005 school year.

"We firmly believe in universal Pre-K," O'Hara said. "But we have to make sure we provide adequate funding, that we don't rob from Peter to pay Paul."

These issues are compounded by the fact the economy isn't generating the funds to meet the current needs of children, he said.

"There are tax cuts that are not helping and tax loopholes that are not helping," he said.

As of February, there are 2,176 children in Pinellas on the waiting list for subsidized child care, said Doug Oakes, assistant executive director for Coordinated Child Care of Pinellas, an organization that provides services for low income working individuals.

Jamia Austin's grandchildren have both attended Community Pride Gateway Center. Austin said she doesn't want to think what would happen if her grandchildren were on that waiting list.

"I hate to think about it. Not only for my grandchildren but for other kids," said Austin, director of the RCS Food Pantry in Clearwater. "I'm a working grandmother raising two grandkids. If I didn't have a facility like this, I wouldn't be able to provide them with a decent place to live and all of the necessities that go along with it."

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