The entry of women into the work force, changing values and a social service system that tries to fix problems instead of preventing them has led experts in child advocacy and treatment to question whether our culture really cares for children.
"In the postwar prosperity of the '50s, television shows like `Ozzie and Harriet' showed a family that hardly exists anymore," Dr. Agnes M. Plenk, founder of the Children's Center of Utah and adjunct associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah, told a crowd at the second annual Riven-dell Children and Youth Center conference Friday."Many of our children now fall into the category of the most disen-franchised," she said. "It has become rather difficult to find heroes for children outside the circle of the family. Even Shirley Temple has changed into `Bad Seed,' `Rosemary's Baby' and `The Exorcist.' Ghosts and monsters are who our children identify with."
She said, "The American welfare system is being squeezed like never before." While children are commonly referred to as "our most precious legacy," she said, "we really don't like to spend money on children. There's a deep sense of ambivalence toward children."
Plenk said that during a recent study children were shown a picture of an adult male hugging a small child. "Very few of the children recognized the man as a loving father figure. There's a lack of trust in family."
While child abuse, illiteracy rates, drug abuse, delinquency and the number of children caring for younger siblings increases, Plenk said that treatment, day care and other facilities to help out are disappearing.
"We have a shrinking pool of foster homes," she said, partly because more mothers are now working. Utah has a higher-than-the-national-average number of women in the work force. And child psychologists are encountering many children who have lived in numerous foster homes, like a 3-year-old counseled by Plenk who had already been in five homes, "moved from family to family."
Among other problems facing children, she said, are the number of children who are dying of AIDS, a 212 percent increase since 1976 in child abuse and the fact that 35 percent of 17-year-olds nationally are illiterate, 18 million children have never seen a dentist and more than 1 million school-age children are not even enrolled.
On the positive side, she said, sweeping reforms in the 1980s of the adoption assistance effort has helped to keep children at home when possible and develop a permanent placement plan in the least restrictive environment when that isn't possible.
"Utah is doing rather well. We are providing some exceptionally good services," Plenk said. "Utah successfully deinstitutionalized the youth corrections system and greatly reduced recidivism.
"All who care for children must become public advocates . . . and work for a society that puts children first, not last."