Editor's note: Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies to help children escape poverty, abuse and neglect and gain access to health care and education. A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, Edelman was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar and was a leader in the civil rights movement. She has received the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Marian Wright Edelman says parents of kids with special needs often feel very much alone.
(CNN) -- The recent experience with Nebraska's safe-haven law gives us a glimpse into the enormous challenges children, youths and their families are facing today all across our country.
Nebraska's law allowed parents or guardians to hand over children of any age to state custody without prosecution.
Although it may have been passed with good intentions, it resulted in 35 children, mostly teenagers, being dropped off at Nebraska health centers or other safe places in the last few months alone.
Five of the children came from other states. Last month, Nebraska changed the law to exclude children older than 30 days.
The response dramatically illustrates how many families struggle unsuccessfully to get help and support for their children. It should serve as a call to action to create a movement in our communities to protect our nation's vulnerable children and overwhelmed families, especially those trying to cope with mental health problems.
Parents and other caregivers of children with special needs, like many of those in Nebraska, often feel very much alone. Even when help exists, they may not know how to find it and to get through bureaucracies that can defeat the most determined parents.
Protecting children is a parental responsibility, but it also is our collective responsibility as no parent raises a child alone. All parents need support from extended family, friends, colleagues and their congregations, and communities. Some parents need professional support to get the treatment their children require.
Each of us can reach out to relatives and neighbors struggling to care for children -- even when familial tension makes that uncomfortable.
When the needs of children go unmet, risks -- like poverty, inadequate health care, lack of quality education and abuse and neglect -- accumulate. Research shows that children facing multiple risks are much more likely than other children to end up in the criminal justice system.
For children struggling to grow up at the dangerous intersection of poverty and race, the problem has reached crisis proportions. Each year, tens of thousands of children are sucked into this pipeline from birth and never escape.
A black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime, and a Latino boy has a one in six chance of the same fate. For a white boy or a black girl it is a one in 17 chance.
We must replace the pipeline to prison with a pipeline to success for all of our children. This will require a major paradigm shift in America -- away from punishment and rehabilitation after a child's problems have become severe -- to prevention and early intervention.
The Children's Defense Fund has sounded an alarm through our "Cradle to Prison Pipeline" Campaign about the pipeline to prison in America and how we must act immediately to dismantle it.
As a first step, we must demand that as health reform moves forward in the Congress in 2009, it includes quality health coverage for all -- not one-third or one-half -- of the 9 million uninsured children -- a number that will grow during an economic downturn.
Real child health reform must ensure that every child and pregnant woman can receive all of the medical services they need and that they do not have to overcome barriers to get covered and stay covered.
In this rich nation, it is immoral for any parent to feel they have no choice but to relinquish custody of their child to the state as a last resort to get mental health care for their child when they cannot find or afford treatment.
Parents should not face the trauma of adjudging themselves neglectful or abusive to get mental health care for their children or have to suffer public humiliation from teachers when the parents are desperate to get care for their uncontrollable mentally ill children.
A study by the Special Investigations Division of the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform Committee reported in 2003 that there were more than 15,000 children in costly juvenile detention facilities solely because of the unavailability of community mental health services.
We are already seeing evidence of the devastating impact of the current downturn on families. Demand for foods stamps is surging, and the number of people on unemployment benefits is at a historic high.
Child poverty and extreme child poverty -- defined as children who live in families with incomes below half of the federal poverty level -- rose last year, and we expect to see them increase dramatically again.
More children will be uninsured, since many parents will be unable to pay for health insurance or will lose family coverage when they lose their jobs. Since stresses on families increase as the downturn worsens, we must make children a priority during these difficult economic times.
The wisest investment our nation can make is in our children. We must not permit the economic crisis to increase the number of children who will be less educated, less healthy and less able to move up the economic ladder.
Providing a safe haven for all our children requires: working to create an economy that works for everyone -- with jobs at decent wages and tax help for working middle class and poor people; providing high quality early childhood development programs for all children; making sure every child can read at grade level by fourth grade and guarantee quality education through high school graduation and college; protecting children from abuse and neglect; and stopping the criminalization of children at increasingly younger ages.
Each step we take to improve the lives of children improves the lives of all of us. Frederick Douglass correctly stated that it is easier to build healthy children than repair broken men. Now is our opportunity to do this.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marian Wright Edelman.