Children's Initiatives: Louisiana Corrections Makes Prevention a Priority

Article excerpt

Paul has been in and out of juvenile corrections for the past six years. It began with petty theft at age 11 when he and his friend Kevin got caught shoplifting at the convenience store around the corner from his mother's apartment. Now he is 18 and heading back home once again after serving time for assault and attempted rape.

Was there something that someone could have done to prevent Paul from falling into this destructive cycle? Many in the state of Louisiana would say yes, including those with the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Crime Prevention

Beginning in December 1997, the department launched a full-scale effort to develop an effective crime prevention program that includes initiatives designed to impact children prenatally, postnatally and in early childhood. The program, Children's Initiatives, provides community outreach measures that focus on parenting skills training, character building and well-child care. According to Richard L. Stalder, secretary of the department, the goal of the program is "to help foster a new generation of healthy, nourished and nurtured children who will be far less likely as they mature to be involved in violence, drop out of school or use drugs - all high factors for subsequent criminality."

Children's Initiatives involves four primary areas of action: 1) mobilizing staff in support of Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) "Steps to Success" program, advocating community involvement and supporting the Louisiana Children's Cabinet (a legislatively created body whose purpose is to facilitate coordination on policy, planning and budgeting affecting programs and services to children and their families); 2) implementing the "Character Counts" program in secure juvenile facilities and nonsecure programs, and promoting its use in the community; 3) supporting Gov. M.J. Foster Jr.'s efforts to reestablish values development as a core curriculum component in schools; and 4) enhancing and expanding parenting skills training in state correctional facilities, providing all inmates, both adult and juvenile, the opportunity to participate prior to release, and suggesting that all those receiving probation or being released on parole be required to participate.

Steps to Success

Clearly, all children need and deserve love, nurturing and support, particularly during their prenatal periods and early years. Steps to Success has been championed by Landrieu as a statewide initiative to coordinate the efforts of all private and public entities and individuals interested in early childhood development. "As the oldest of nine siblings, ! kind of took on a leadership role early in life, taking care of my younger brothers and sisters," says Landrieu. "When I got to the Louisiana Legislature in my early 20s, I quickly found out that there were few, if any, lawmakers speaking out for children and their families, which is why I took on that role."

Landrieu's interest in this initiative was heightened by recent research that shows that a child's brain is nearly 90 percent developed by age three and 99 percent developed by age six. In fact, according to the Rand Corp., only 10 percent of public spending on children focuses on kids in that age bracket. Yet, during the school years when kids are more visible to the community, those ages five to 18 receive 90 percent of public spending on children (see Chart 1). "Children, particularly from birth to age three, need to have not only their basic needs met, but also the consistent attention and affection of at least one person," says Landrieu. "Today's families need support and encouragement from their communities and our society."

Landrieu notes that a group of research scientists recently was shown a chart of two brains, both of which looked average in size [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], although one was larger than the other. Believing that the brains were those of adults, the scientists figured that the smaller one had Alzheimer's disease and the other was the brain of a healthy adult; they were wrong. …