Agency serves as voice for children

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 2010, Mecklenburg County was home to over 233,000 children, 21.2 percent of them living in poverty, up from 13.9 percent just two years earlier.

Fueling the surge in child poverty, experts say, was the economic plunge that began in fall 2008 with the collapse of the capital markets.

Still, total investment in programming for children in the county in 2010 totaled roughly $1.6 billion, or about $6,700 per child, according to a new study by the Council for Children’s Rights.

That investment is less than some states spend on education alone per pupil, says Brett Loftis, executive director of the Council for Children’s Rights.

Better understanding and addressing the needs of children in the county through services, research and advocacy is the job of the council.

Created through the 2006 merger of the Council for Children, an advocacy group formed in 1979, and the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit law firm formed in 1984, the agency serves as an advocate for individual children and as a think-tank that studies and promotes systems change.

Operating with an annual budget of $2.6 million and 31 employees, the council serves roughly 2,500 individual children a year.

It is the only specialized public defender for juveniles in Mecklenburg County, for example, representing about 1,500 kids a year through a contract with the state to provide all legal representation for children in juvenile court.

It also represents about 150 kids a year caught in high-conflict custody fights, plus another 300 kids on issues involving special education, school discipline, mental health, disability services and immigration services.

Serving as the council’s think-tank is the Larry King Center for Building Children’s Futures, a program that was created in 2008 and grew out of the United Agenda for Children, an initiative spearheaded by Foundation for the Carolinas, The Duke Endowment, Duke Energy and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

A big lesson from that initiative, which aimed “to try to get the community engaged in setting priorities for children,” was that the community needed an “infrastructure” to push for change, Loftis says.

“There need to be people whose job it is to compile research, to do that data analysis, to work with the community to build plans for implementation, and then to drive the implementation of those plans,” he says.

A group of funders agreed to fund the new center for the first three years, and then help it raise funds to support its operations.

The Duke Endowment now has agreed to provide $300,000 a year for two more years, and Foundation for the Carolinas has agreed to provide $75,000 a year.

In October, the King Center released the first-ever Charlotte-Mecklenburg Children’s Budget that shows total public investment in children in the county, along with funding from United Way of Central Carolinas.

Through research, community planning and policy work, all available at its website, the center wants to help the community understand the problems children face and make decisions about how to those problems.

“Too often, we continue the services that we give to children and families without stepping back and looking to see if they are designed to give us the outcomes we are looking for,” Loftis says.

While parenting has the “single greatest impact on a child’s life,” for example, “we do very little as a community system to support parents to be good parents,” Loftis says.

Among 7,000 births every year to low-income mothers receiving federal Medicaid assistance, for example, only 250 mothers receive home visits by nurses and social workers.

So the center is working with local providers of home visits “to increase their capacity and their connection with each other to build a continuum” of parenting services and target those services to neighborhoods where they are most needed, he says.

“We exist,” Loftis says, “because the community believes that children need a voice.”

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