Each new report seems to affirm the bad news about the quality of life for children in the District. For example, a U.S. Census Bureau study recently revealed that one-third of the city's children live in poverty -- a staggering statistic considering that this is the nation's capital and that the country's economy has been booming for several years. But, sadly, the unsettling news does not stop there:
More than 3,200 children are receiving foster care in the District, a whopping 50 percent increase in just a little more than two years. This surge is all the more shocking because the population of the District is shrinking.
Fifty-eight percent of the District's children reside in a home without a father present, the highest rate ever. All of us know children who were raised successfully in single-parent homes, but the emotional and financial toll on a single parent can be overwhelming; in fatherless situations, children also are robbed of a vital role model.
Teenage pregnancy rates are declining nationally but in the District have remained at 16 percent for the past four years, which is substantially above the national average. In communities east of the Anacostia River, teenage pregnancy rates hover at 25 percent.
High school graduation rates continue to be abysmal. Each year since 1994 barely half the students who began the ninth grade in the District earned a high school diploma. And the immediate future appears no brighter.
Last year only 54 percent of 10th-graders scored at a basic or higher level on the Stanford-9 reading exam, while an astonishingly low 17 percent achieved basic or higher performance on the math test -- and both scores are an improvement from the previous year. In an economy in which jobs increasingly require sophisticated technical skills, the failure to receive a high school diploma dooms these young people to low-paying jobs.
While the temptation may be to look for scapegoats or quick fixes, no easy answers can be found to address the ravages of poverty, the lack of opportunity and the devastation of drugs, alcohol and violence. But we have reason for hope.
The District's mayor is making children and youth the centerpiece of his administration, and he is backing up his promises by infusing millions into new services for children. The D.C. Council agrees with the mayor on the importance of new investments in children, and the superintendent of schools is committed to academic excellence.
These are good signs, but we need more. We need to establish a children's bill of rights to create a framework for our commitment to a healthy future for our children.
On Tuesday, thousands of people in the District will participate in a candlelight vigil to show their support for a children's bill of rights. This bill of rights states that every child has the right to:
(1) A loving home and family.
(2) Food, clothing, shelter and medical care.
(3) An education.
(4) Absolute safety and freedom from abuse and neglect.
(5) Freedom from prejudice and inequality.
(6) Life without fear, unhindered by the threat of drugs, violence and alcohol.
(7) Chastity and freedom from sexual exploitation.
(9) The chance to one day make the world a better place.
(10) Be put in touch with the God who loves him or her.
The late Redskins' coach George Allen was noted for his assertion that "the future is now." When it comes to our children, he was absolutely right.
-- Vince Gray
is executive director of Covenant House and a former director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.