For healthy families

Published: Friday, July 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 1, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
There was a moment of exquisite irony when County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson took his leave from a United Way "Success by Six" luncheon on Thursday - having just promised to become a "children's champion" - so he could rush off to another commitment.
"We have to do something different," Pinkoson told the 250 people in attendance, before noting that he was off to "a meeting about jail overcrowding."
The distance between that luncheon at the Savannah Grand and the jail overcrowding meeting at the courthouse is just a few blocks.
But the proximity between the United Way's Success by Six initiative and the county's perennial jail funding problem is so direct and so immediate as to be painfully obvious.
It is as simple as this: If all of Alachua County's five-years olds were able to begin school healthy and "ready to learn," this fall, Alachua County's jail population would begin to decline dramatically within a decade or so.
Think that's an exaggeration? It is not. As Jack Levine, a well-known Florida child advocate, pointed out at the United Way lunch, the state of Alabama has a depressingly accurate method for determining its prison capacity needs: The state calculates third-grade failure rates and then projects those numbers ahead by a decade.
City or county commissioners don't often think of themselves as being in the early childhood development business. But the truth is that the enormous criminal justice and social service costs that plague both city and county, the community's difficulty in attracting high-paying jobs, its ability to sustain a high quality of life for many residents and so many other local problems are a direct result of our failure to give all of Alachua County's children a healthy start in life from the day they are born.
The premise of Success by Six is simply this: If this community wants a well-trained, well-motivated workforce, it must start by focusing on early childhood health, welfare and education. If it wants less crime, fewer jail inmates and smaller court dockets, it must invest in children who might otherwise be at risk of failing, dropping out and disappearing into "the system."
That's not just a job for parents. It's not simply the responsibility of Florida's Division of Children & Families. It's not only the School Board's job, or the responsibility of the Early Learning Coalition or the Child Abuse Prevention Project.
It must be the community's job. And Success by Six intends to make healthy children and families a top priority in Gainesville and Alachua County for local governments, the business community, the educational establishment, civic organizations, non-profit agencies and neighborhood associations.
The good news is that this community doesn't have to "reinvent the wheel" in figuring out how to do it.
The United Way's purpose on Tuesday was to demonstrate how another city, Hampton, Va., managed to lift itself out of economic despair and improve its quality of life by forging a public-private "Healthy Families Partnership" to address systemic problems involving prenatal health care, child abuse, a high teen birth rate, parenting skills and pre-school education.
Hampton has received much national publicity for an initiative, begun in 1991, that in one way or another touches the families of nearly every pre-schooler in the city through prenatal classes, home visitations, parental skill-building classes and other programs.
Although the initiative itself was launched by the city, Healthy Families works because of the continued support and involvement of a large number of public and private partners.
Among other things, the Hampton initiative has contributed to a 23 percent decrease in teen birth rates, a 35 percent decrease in infant mortality rates and a 26 percent decrease in child abuse reports.
"So many of the resources you need are already in place," Debbie Russell, manager of resource development and communications for the Hampton initiative, told the audience. "What's needed is a comprehensive approach to serving all children between birth and five years of age. Communities often don't become involved in children until they enter school."
The Healthy Families Partnership changed Hampton's destiny. And with a strong commitment on the part of government, business and community groups, Success for Six can create a better future for Gainesville and Alachua County as well.
"If you really want to do something, you'll find a way to do it," Russell challenged the community. "If you don't, you'll find an excuse not to."
On July 14, Success by Six will convene its first take force meeting to begin to lay out a vision for a healthy families partnership. We urge local government, business, civic and community leaders to become active participants in that effort.
Because it is foolish to invest in jails when we can invest in children.

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