America's Tianamen Reflection: Who Paid Attention?

In June, 1989, when Tianamen Square struck, I was presenting the first study and projections of American AIDS orphans at that year's International AIDS Conference, which, attended by some 10,000 people, was held in Montreal. All told, it was an endlessly depressing occasion, as we rushed from report and presentation after report and presentation on the terrible news about the exploding AIDS epidemic and then back to TV sets to watch the Tianamen explosion.

"Surely they won't shoot their own kids in front of the whole world," we all said to ourselves, like every one else. But, they did. But, there was something else I said to myself, as I stood beside the large poster of these first projections -- which foretold that New York City alone would have between 50,000 and 75,000 AIDS orphans. What I said to myself was, "Surely people will notice these children." But they didn't.

To this day, as I have written about in detail, the United States has no policy or nationally funded programs for its own AIDS orphans -- even though it has the most orphans and children living precariously in a home where the parent, usually a single mother, struggles with AIDS in the Western World.

No nation, of course, can flourish, if it's not going to bring its children along with it. For me, the concurrence of Tianamen and these first orphan projections imprinted itself as a perhaps odd, but eerily prescient demarcation of national fates. In the 20 years since the nadir of Tianamen, China has changed immeasurably, forming a modernized economy, modern educational system and, if nothing resembling a democracy, unquestionably a place where more and more children can claim a better future than was available twenty years ago. The Chinese government may now pretend that Tianamen didn't happen and block mention of it even on the internet, but it was obviously a catalyst.

For the United States, the start of its deliberate blindness -- and resultant cruelty -- toward its own AIDS orphans, its poorest, most vulnerable and bereaved children, also marked a new departure -- or more precisely descent. In the twenty years since, the position of poorer American children, increasingly defined not even by single-parent households, but by vast parentlessness, has deteriorated terribly. Over a decade alone, the numbers of American children and teens being raised by grandparents has doubled to reach 6% of all kids under age 18. In growing numbers of cities, including Baltimore and Washington, D. C., 25% of kids in households are not direct children of the householder, but kids in either formal or informal foster care. Nothing, not the sobs of kids or the careful research that now presents an array of programs which can help these parentless children grow up to be productive, has been able to move the United States from its main national response to the many problems of kids without stable homes. That response, of course, is prison; although juvenile crime itself actually decreased after the drug-related spike in the early 1990's, juvenile detention -- that is the number of kids jailed at some point in their contact with the juvenile "justice" system -- increased by 42% from 1985 to 2002.

This huge and debilitating national failure is searingly captured by the national failure to have a program known as subsidized guardianship. In subsidized guardianship, relatives or other adults known to the child, take over the guardianship of variously orphaned or abandoned kids -- without having to go through the daunting years' long process of adoption. They are eligible to receive small subsidies, usually around $20 a day to actually feed and clothe the children. In 1997, national legislation allowed states which elected to start subsidized guardianship programs to do so by using funds from their federal social service block grants. The resulting years have shown that, in states with subsidized guardianship, this approach has enormously increased stable homes for kids -- especially for minority teenagers, the kids least likely to be adopted. The resulting years have also shown that many states -- including New York State, with its mammoth numbers of kids in foster care -- are too lazy or indifferent to put subsidized sub sized guardianship in place, even though it is more successful and saves them money over foster care!

National legislation is the only solution but national legislation to require states to offer subsidized sub-sized guardianship programs, co-sponsored by former Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Olympia Snowe, has languished in Washington for years.

In other words, during the greatest prosperity ever known on earth, which is what the United States had for the previous twenty years, we wouldn't spend $20 a day to provide the best proven route for hurt and abandoned children to obtain stable homes where they had the best proven chance to grow up to be productive citizens; 85% of kids placed through subsidized guardianship remain in one home until they are age 18, an extraordinary contrast to the typical "placement churning" of foster care, especially for older kids and teens. Yet, we would pay $200,000 a year -- which is what juvenile detention now costs per year per young inmate in California and New York -- to provably treat hurt kids in a way which provably increases their prospects of becoming adult criminals.

And, now we don't have our prosperity. When we come to these anniversaries of Tianamen, to me it is always a searing reminder that, one way or the other, nations will be haunted by their youth. And if this nation continues to refuse to undertake the logical, fair and best proven measures to launch these millions of distraught kids to viable adulthood, it is unlikely to ever have its prosperity again -- especially as it becomes an ever older nation which actually needs all its kids.

(Those interested in subsidized guardianship and how it is working in states that have it, as well as summaries of proven programs to help children develop well, should go to the very useful Children's Defense Fund website.)