District Mayor Anthony A. Williams and two D.C. Council members said yesterday they would support two dozen proposals as part of a package aimed at improving conditions for children in the city.
While several of the proposals are not new, Williams (D) and council members Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) and Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8) cast their effort as the first D.C. program designed to comprehensively address the needs of children in the District. One recent study--citing threats of drugs, violence and other problems--said the city is among the worst places in the United States to raise a child.
The new program, dubbed Safe Passages, includes plans for mandatory criminal background checks on all child-care providers, youth workers and those providing criminal justice services to youths; random drug and alcohol testing for all D.C. government personnel; and expanded drug-free zones near schools, libraries and other places frequented by young people.
The plan also includes a $2.5 million computer system to share information among agencies as services are delivered and track the status of children as they move to adulthood.
"We're making a strong commitment to our city's children," Williams said. "This is not just my commitment but also the commitment of the council. This package will hold our government accountable for better serving our children."
The officials said 12 D.C. agencies will coordinate their services to carry out the program. Williams said the agencies critical to the success of the program include the departments of Health, Human Services and Child and Family Services, the D.C public schools and the police department.
Williams and the council members mentioned several statistics they said illustrated the desperate plight of many children in the city: About 40 percent of the District's children live in poverty; child abuse cases increased 20 percent from 1997 to 1998; and D.C. students consistently fare poorly on standardized tests in reading and math.
Williams said the primary goals of the program include making sure that children are ready to learn upon entering school, ensuring that youths are succeeding in school and reducing youth-on-youth violence in schools.
The initiative also includes plans to increase the number of slots in government-subsidized child care and to provide 16,400 D.C. youths with employment and job-training information.
Chavous said the plan is "a comprehensive approach to dealing with children in crisis. We're not going to give up on any child."
Yesterday's announcement signaled what appeared to be a new working relationship between Williams and Chavous, who some government sources say have had an uneasy relationship since last year, when Chavous lost a bid for mayor.
Both Williams and Chavous said they have put aside any political differences.
"We promised each other no matter what happened that we would find a way to make sure that agencies that are supposed to touch children actually touch children," Chavous said.
While D.C. officials touted their initiative as innovative, some activists weren't so sure, saying they had seen similar proposals come and go without much commitment to their success.
Activist Dorothy Brizill said she saw nothing new in the plan, adding that some of the initiatives already are being funded and poorly operated.
"When somebody gives me a coat, I know when it's a new coat or a used coat," she said. "This Safe Passages plan to me seems like a used coat."
But Williams said there are new ideas in Safe Passages and promised that residents will see positive changes within six months.
CAPTION: Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said the initiative is "a strong commitment to our city's children."