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Advocates Push Program to Lift Families Out of Poverty

March 11, 2007 — The local family structure continues to deteriorate, experts say, and concerned community members are calling upon lawmakers to enact policies to boost low-to-moderate income households, especially those with children.
This includes creating more employment opportunities for residents; putting in place better salaries so that single parents do not have to work multiple jobs; and structuring a workplace that allows families to spend more time together, a small group of residents said Saturday at a conference hosted by the V.I. Commission on the Status of Women and V.I. Perinatal.
Participants added that such polices could also reduce the scourge of poverty, which now affects one out of every three children in the territory. "We really need to get together and pool all the resources we have before the quality of life here goes completely down in the pits," said Mavis Brady, the commission's secretary.
Government officials particularly need to focus on the local public school system, improving test scores, creating incentives for students to stay in school and educating teenagers about sex and pregnancy, Brady and others said.
However, two students attending the conference said that new government policies should focus on creating a more flexible work environment, which allows parents to spend more time at home with their children.
"Because the mother and father are often away, the children really don't get the support they need from their parents," said Wanston Jarvis, a senior at Charlotte Amalie High School. "They think that the parents don't care. So they go out and find the love that they need by sleeping with older men or having a baby."
Other government policies should also focus on addressing crime, said Dilsa Capdeville, founder of Kidscope, a local organization geared toward treating victims of domestic violence or sexual assault and abuse. "Our boys are frightened," she said. "They see their friends have gotten killed or injured, and they have to deal with that, which makes them very, very insecure."
More outreach efforts need to be taken into the schools to teach students about the dangers of HIV and AIDS, she added. Because of a lack of education, Capdeville explained, many sexually active students and adults pass the disease on without telling their partners or seeking treatment. "The community needs to be made aware that we have a serious problem, and that we're losing our children because of this," she said.
As the featured speaker during the event, Capdeville said that lawmakers, government officials and community members should adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy toward poverty and violence, and work together to formulate a plan of action geared toward rebuilding the family unit.
"We need targets, benchmarks and goals," she said. "A system of data collection, a commitment to put the money toward funding these efforts. Because without us putting something in place, and doing it soon, we will continue to move toward a world where children are no longer being born."
Data provided during the conference by Donnalie Edwards-Cabey, representing the Community Foundation of the V.I., echoed Capdeville's argument. Referencing statistics included in the 2006 Kids Count Data Book, Edwards-Cabey painted a bleak picture of families in the territory, which are often headed by single mothers working more than one job.
"The implications of this, with many of the households headed by females working two or three low-paying jobs, is that the children are placed in a situation where they are living in poverty," she said. "And once a child grows up in poverty, statistics show that the poverty cycle will most likely extend to future generations."
Edwards-Cabey added that:
— 47.5 percent of all families in the territory are headed by a single mother;
— the number of teen deaths in children age 15-19 has increased 24 percent in the territory since 1997, and is now 150 percent higher than the national average;
— 14.5 percent of teens age 16-19 are not enrolled in school or employed (this figure is up 51 percent from statistics collected in 2005);
— one in three adults age 18 or 19 do not have a high-school diploma; and
— one out of every three children in the territory live in poverty.
"That's why we say that the face of poverty for 2006 is the face of a child, of the children of the Virgin Islands," she said.
All information and suggestions gathered during the meeting will be sent to the Senate, Gov. John deJongh Jr. and Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis, said Sonia L. Boyce, the commission's chairwoman.
Attending Saturday's conference were First Lady Cecile DeJongh and Sen. Carmen M. Wesselhoft.
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