While many public programs are being delayed, reduced or canceled as state and federal budget problems continue, the one thing that can't wait patiently are the childhoods of an entire generation, advocates say.
How to get the best interests of today's children back on the front burner was the theme of the Illinois Kids Count Symposium hosted Monday by Voices for Illinois Children at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates.
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Gaylord Gieske, president of Voices for Illinois Children, said the needs of children are caught in a budget crossfire, leading to the erosion of prior commitments and long-term investments in young people.
"There is only one shot at growing up and there are no do-overs," she said.
But any and all advocacy for children's issues must begin with the regaining of fiscal stability in Illinois, said Jerry Stermer, acting director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
Great strides Illinois was making using the latest understanding of how children learn have been sent into a downward spiral by the economic crisis that began in 2008, Stermer said.
What the cause of children needs most right now are not just the leaders of not-for-profits to speak up, but individual parents to tell their personal stories to legislators, he added.
"Kids do well when their families do well, and families do well when their communities support them," Stermer said.
Democratic state Rep. Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates said parents specifically need to contact the members of the human services appropriations committees in both the Illinois House and Senate.
And while he didn't want to describe today's situation as a turf war, he told advocates that they have to be prepared to say why their programs are more important than others.
Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said that many children's advocates probably are making a legitimate claim when they tell legislators that particular programs save more money than they cost. But he stressed the importance of getting the message across in a unique way, as legislators tend to hear the same words from too many people -- and more often than can possibly be true.
Park Ridge Police Chief Frank Kaminski, a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, talked about how the 1958 Our Lady of the Angels school that killed 92 children in Chicago so shook up the way schools prepared for fires that people dying in school fires has been virtually unheard of since.
But when it comes to kids being killed by street violence, the same political will hasn't been there, he said.
Law enforcement knows that child neglect and abuse is an accurate predictor of who will become a criminal as an adult, Kaminski said. That's why intervention programs for troubled kids are so important in creating a safe environment for everyone, he added.
"If we can reduce abuse and neglect, we can stop the cycle of violence," Kaminski said. "Either we pay now or we pay later. You've got to think about prevention and you've got to get shocked and you've got to get awed about what's going on in our communities."
Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder and Hoffman Estates Mayor William McLeod were among the audience of largely not-for-profit leaders at the symposium.
McLeod said one way a mayor like himself can help the situation is to increase understanding among state and federal legislators about the large number of low-income families that live in the suburbs. And as president of the Northwest Municipal Conference this year, he believes he has an increased opportunity to get this message across.