Calvert County officials have declared 1997 the Year of the Family because some members of the county’s League of Women Voters thought children in their communities were spending too much time on their own.
In this once-rural county now home to more and more two- commuting-parent families, children grow up spending less time with parents or other adults than did previous generations, the league noticed.
League members saw more families they didn’t know moving onto their streets and more children leaving and entering empty homes before and after school.
“As we grow, and this is a fast, fast growing county, we were afraid problems would become worse unless we did something about this,” said Barbara Fetterhoff, league president.
And so a year ago, the group decided to study how the children in their county were faring.
They interviewed 100 county educators, social service and health care providers, and in September published a report called “Children at Risk.”
They found a host of problems facing Calvert County kids:
* Of Calvert County’s total population of 63,190, 29 percent is under 18 — the highest number of youth in any Maryland county, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.
* Calvert County had the state’s highest rate of eighth graders who reported drinking alcohol, according to the Maryland Adolescent Survey.
* The same survey reports a higher-than state and national average use of marijuana, inhalants, cocaine, crack, LSD and heroin.
* Between 1992-’93 and 1994-’95 school years, the violence- related suspension rate increased from 18.2 per 1,000 children to 25 per 1,000, according to the Maryland Kids Count Fact Book.
* Finally, between 1990 and 1993 the number of juvenile arrests increased by 48.6 percent. The county now has the fifth highest rate in Maryland, Kids Count reported.
“Too many children we know are having to go home to empty houses,” said Anne Whisman, one of the women who produced the study.
So it’s “pay now or pay later” for lack of parental and adult involvement in children’s lives, Whisman said.
Adults must ensure children’s well-being or be prepared to assume the costs incurred by children who use alcohol and other drugs, are sexually active at an early age and are suspended or arrested for violent behavior, the league report states.
The report calls for more parental support and guidance, affordable infant and child care, after-school recreation and psychological counseling for children who need it.
League members said they wanted to sound a “wake-up call for the county.” It worked.
In October, the county declared its intent to “do more work with our youth,” said Hagner R. Mister, president of the board of county commissioners.
County officials say they will address the problems of children whom the report said needed more supervised time with adults and more structured recreation activities.
“The report helped crystallize the need to do something like this,” Mister said.
“Family unity is important to the way of life here in Calvert County and the bond that takes place between family members makes for a better quality of life for everyone involved,” he said.
Mister said he was unable to give specifics about the county’s plans.
But since publishing the study, league members are trying to decide how to further their recommendations. They plan to organize meetings with local volunteer groups, fraternal organizations and clubs to discuss how the county and citizens may better help young people.
“I hope to see the major organizations in the county taking on some piece of it,” said Candace Sullivan, who heads the study’s strategic planning group. “I’d like to see everyone in the county putting in more effort in terms of spending more time with young people,” Sullivan said. -30-