Hundreds of advocates for North Carolina children visited Raleigh on Wednesday to encourage General Assembly members to invest in education and health care and reduce the number of teenagers tried as adults for low-level crimes.
Doctors, child care operators, parents and law enforcement officials visited legislators and heard speeches on the lawn behind the Legislative Building as toddlers and others played in the midday sun with hula hoops and a life-sized game of Chutes and Ladders.
"We need to ensure that our kids, who may not have a voice in Raleigh, are heard," said Dr. Deborah Ainsworth, a Beaufort County physician and N.C. Pediatric Society leader.
The "Child and Family Day" wasn't meant to single out any particular publicly funded initiatives or criticize legislative leaders, according to the group's sponsors. Child-focused programs have faced years of spending cuts by the General Assembly since 2009 under both Democratic and Republican leadership.
Rather, they tried to highlight past successes and several areas where a stronger commitment to funding could reduce poverty and infant mortality and improve access to child care.
"We want to hold our lawmakers accountable for the people of North Carolina's children," said Dr. Peter Morris of Raleigh, chairman of the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force. "We want to step side-by-side with them as they do it. We do not wish to demonize anyone. We wish to inspire ... them to invest in our children's future."
Other groups represented at the event included the Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, the parent organization behind Smart Start and the North Carolina Child Care Coalition.
"We need to invest in our young children because they are our future," said Shirley Sumpter, a child care operator in Sanford.
Henderson Police Chief Keith Sidwell said a financial commitment to early childhood initiatives such as Smart Start will route at-risk youngsters toward being productive members of society as adults and away from crime. Smart Start has taken 20 percent spending cuts from the state the past two years.
Another group held a news conference later Wednesday urging lawmakers to pass a House bill that would bring 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, instead of adult courts as they are currently.
North Carolina and New York are the only two states where 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically prosecuted in adult court.
The "Raise the Age" movement has been trying for years to bring more young offenders under the juvenile system, where backers of the idea say teenagers will receive more age-appropriate treatment and punishment. It also will prevent teens from receiving the stigma of an adult criminal record that could hurt them while seeking employment or college admission, Durham County Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey said.
Previous proposals also would have sent young people with low-grade felonies to the juvenile system. This year's bill is designed to bring more legislators on board by limiting it to misdemeanors.
"We want to make progress," said Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, the bill's primary sponsor. Wednesday's news conference also featured the bill's endorsement by the president of Justice Fellowship, a faith-based criminal justice reform group.