Failed 'Year of the Infant'


As the "Year of the Infant" draws to a close, we are left with the distinct sense that in the end, this worthy initiative never bridged the gap between marketing and delivery. Thirteen months ago, an impassioned Gov. William Donald Schaefer proclaimed, "Our children are our future," as he ticked off a raft of programs aimed at improving the status of youngsters in the current fiscal year.

Many of these programs have been stalled or derailed by budget cuts and lack of funds. Worse, the effort has not only failed to move forward but actually has lost ground in key areas such as infant mortality and the percentage of low birth-weight babies.

Consider these alarming statistics: In a recent national study Maryland placed 33rd in the nation on a half-dozen key indicators of child well-being. It ranked 42nd in infant mortality rates; 45th in low birth-weight babies and 36th in teen births. In all three areas, Maryland is on the wrong side of the national average.

The troubled status of Maryland's children could hardly be remedied in a single year. Children's welfare agencies, like others, have had to operate in a treacherous budget environment. But lack of funds is only part of the problem.

The system needs reform. Any real improvement in the status of Maryland's children will require substantive changes in the way money is spent. Too many dollars are spent on crisis management, not enough on intervention. Infant mortality rates could be reduced by making prenatal care available to high-risk populations. Yet services such as these are often under-funded and the first to go when cuts are made. A case in point: Baltimore City's recently shuttered Maternity Center East and Maternity Center West, cost-effective programs that offered nine months of prenatal care at a cost of about $600. The hospital bill for a premature baby in intensive care is $2,500 per day.

From a marketing standpoint, the "Year of the Infant" was a success, raising awareness within and outside state agencies of the importance of children's services early in life. Now comes the much harder work of making a real difference in the status of the children who comprise a quarter of the state's population.

This calls for a new approach, one in which preventive services are not merely viewed as adjuncts to programs, but important initiatives in their own right. Reaching children and their families long before crisis erupts should be a prime objective. Helping kids become happy, productive adults isn't something that should be highlighted for a year and then forgotten. It is something that deserves and demands a long-term commitment.

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