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The Role Of A Child Advocate

What Is Child Advocacy? Its Basic Elements
By Mason E. Scholl
It takes a village to raise a child. — African proverb

(Thank you to the United Voices For Children for this information!)

I. Introduction

Webster's dictionary defines an advocate as one who pleads the cause of another, or one who is friendly to and a defender of another person, group or cause. Because children have neither voice nor vote and little political influence in our country, child advocates are needed to ensure justice in the provision of both protection and services to children. Simply stated, the role of the child advocate is to do whatever can reasonably be done to focus attention and action upon the needs of children.

This means making the commitment to advocate for a nurturing environment for each child at the family, community, state and national levels, working to assure that families have the essential resources needed in caring for their children.

II. Practicing Child Advocacy

1. Educational advocacy
Even in the "age of information" there can be a lack of understanding and misinformation regarding the needs of children and the issues affecting them and their families. Collecting and sharing reliable information with your advocacy group to create a more informed public regarding children's issues is an essential task of child advocacy.

The challenging part of this task is finding opportunities to share this information in ways that will sensitize advocates on what needs to be done to maintain effective support systems for the nurture of all our children. Organizing advocacy events, giving presentations, printing articles in church newsletters and community newspapers, holding public meetings, writing letters to the editor, communicating information on the Internet, using local public access television are just a few of the many ways to get across the message.

2. Service Advocacy
After people understand the issues and the needs, child advocates can be important "catalysts" for change in the community. If children do not have a safe place to go after school, child advocates can mobilize efforts toward starting an after-school program. If there is not enough quality, economical child care available in the community child advocates can advocate the start of a new child care center in the community.

If there are gangs and drugs in the neighborhood, child advocates can mobilize community effort to address this challenge, working closely with law enforcement and neighborhood community groups.

If the neighborhood elementary school needs help with children who are below grade level in their reading scores, child advocates can volunteer time tutoring young students.

There are as many ways to help as there are needs and challenges. It takes creative thinking and collaboration to get it done. A child advocate can get it started!

3. Legislative advocacy
Maintaining close contact with public officials and legislators is very important in protecting the interests of children. Informed child advocates have a responsibility to raise the question with their public officials regarding legislation and public policy issues: "Is this in the best interests of children and their families?"

Child advocates can often lift the level of discussion beyond partisan politics and political rhetoric. It has been said that if kindergartners could vote, much more attention would be paid to children's issues. Because children can't vote, it is our responsibility as child advocates to be sensitive to their needs and speak on their behalf, raising those concerns that can be translated into effective legislation and the administration of public policy.

Child advocates can write, phone, fax and e-mail their legislators, speak at school board meetings, attend city council and county board meetings, write letters to the editor of newspapers, call in radio talk shows, and meet personally with legislators and their program staff.

Child advocates can provide opportunities for effective dialogue by holding legislative forums and "coffees" in their churches, inviting legislators and public officials to attend, to explain their positions, and hear the viewpoints of child advocates. Many examples can be cited where a concerned minority has had a profound influence on the direction of public policy and legislation whether it is community, regional or national.

The power and influence of even one child advocate to effect change is significant and compelling. Someone has said that the bad news is that our children are in trouble. The good news is that doing something to help our children is not that complicated.

III. Grass-roots Legislative Advocacy Strategies — A few guidelines to get you started when you meet your legislator

1. Select only one or two issues that affect your children.
Focusing on too many issues will dilute both your message and your energy. The words of Margaret Brodkin are relevant: "Pick a fight that is big enough to matter, but small enough to win."

2. Recruit others to your cause.
In numbers you have strength and influence. Legislators know how to count, especially the number of voters from their constituencies who support a particular issue.

3. Carefully pick the persons you need to influence.
Research their positions on your cause. Determine their roles and influence on legislation about which you are concerned. For example, legislators serving on committees reviewing children's legislation are especially important. If you find you have better access to one of the legislator's staff members, work with him or her. Get the attention of the person who can be most helpful in furthering your cause.

4. Plan your strategy.
Should you engage in a letter writing or phone campaign? Is there time or opportunity to meet with your legislators when they are in their "home" districts between legislative sessions? Who can best represent your organization if you meet with the legislators or their program staff? Sharpen your message. Get personal stories that illustrate the need; provide examples of success that support your position. Make the message simple and straightforward. Name particular actions you want taken.

5. Follow-up.
One member of your group should be assigned to send a thank you note. If possible, everyone should send one. Continue communications with the elected official and continue to build the relationship.


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