A coalition of state legislators, civic leaders, church groups, children's advocates, health care professionals, educators and media outlets are joining together to create an awareness about the multitude of challenges facing children in Marion County.
The group will then seek solutions to those challenges. The effort will be called 2012: The Year of the Child.
"Many children in our community are at-risk," said state Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, co-chair of the effort. "Some live in poverty. In Marion County, the poverty rate for children younger than the age of 5 is 36 percent. For African-American children, the rate is 38.9 percent. And 57.7 percent of Latino children live in poverty. Those figures are unacceptable in a civilized society.
"In addition, children in Marion County face gang violence in the neighborhoods and bullying in schools as well as peer pressure to use tobacco, alcohol and drugs," said Rep. Pryor. "Too many of our young people become dropouts and lose their educational opportunities. High unemployment plagues our youth. Poor dietary habits, a lack of physical exercise, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases also create a shadow that prevents our youth from achieving their full potential. The problems are immense and they have to be addressed."
Rep. Pryor continued: "We achieve what we emphasize and we want to emphasize and challenge people to focus on solutions to address issues in various areas that impact children's lives in Marion County."
Mindi Goodpaster, director of the Marion County Commission on Youth (MCCOY) Public Policy and Advocacy, echoed Pryor's concerns.
"Bullying in schools, domestic violence, gang-related activities, and the presence of drug dealers put children in danger every day in Marion County," Goodpaster said. "We must come together as a community to create a safe environment that ensures the protection of children. Our youth will thrive in a safe environment which allows them to excel in their studies and to achieve the dreams they possess. Safeguarding our children must become a priority for all of us."
Dr. Virginia Caine, the Marion County Public Health Department director, said the focus must be from birth to adulthood.
"There are significant challenges facing our community with infant mortality and prenatal care, then the problems extend through the entire developmental phase of the child, from birth to adulthood," Dr. Caine explained. "Those problems include childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes. We can throw up our hands and surrender or we can accept the responsibility to our youth and our community.
"Ignoring problems only exacerbates them," continued Dr. Caine. "Confronting these enormous issues, with solid solutions, will enable us to help the next generation overcome these tremendous obstacles. Our young people are our community's future. There is no question that they are worth saving. Save them and we save ourselves."
Robin Shackleford, an Indianapolis civic leader, is co-chairing the event with Rep. Pryor.
"Utilizing the resources of our community, through all of these wide-ranging organizations, will enable us to identify the critical concerns facing our youth and allow us to initiate community-driven, grass roots solutions and public policy strategies to combat these problems," Shackleford said.
"There are numerous aspects to the ‘Year of the Child.' One is education, especially concerning health care, job training, and financial independence," she said. "Another is communication, so Marion County citizens recognize the long-term consequences of ignoring problems and the benefits of addressing them with realistic solutions. Together, as a community, we can realize remarkable achievements."
Pryor emphasized the critical need for public policy initiatives.
"Some of the solutions will need the assistance of the Indianapolis City-County Council," Pryor emphasized. "Likewise, the Indiana General Assembly will need to address other issues, including educational opportunities. Funding will be crucial, because it takes more than good wishes to create significant change. Yet, the investment in our youth is one that will pay dividends seven times seventy. It is not only the smart thing to do for society, it is also the right thing to do."
Several organizations have already committed to the 2012: The Year of the Child, including the Concerned Clergy, Marion County Commission on Youth, Marion County Public Health Department, Radio One/WTLC, and the Children's Bureau as well as many leaders from the faith-based community, state legislators, City-County Council members, and civic leaders.
Pryor urged anyone or any group, who would like to participate, to contact her legislative office at (317) 234-9047.