Children's issues took center stage as the T.C. Williams School of Law hosted General Assembly candidates for a law forum on Sept. 27. Eight House of Delegates candidates and four state senate candidates participated in the forum, highlighting the needs of children in areas such as education, health care and juvenile justice.

Robert Shepherd, a Richmond law professor, moderated the question-and-answer session, which was held in the Moot Court Room at the law school.

Mary Dunne Stewart, a policy analyst for Voices for Virginia's Children, one of the event sponsors, said that about 40 candidates -- all candidates in the area -- were invited to participate in the forum, but only 12 agreed to it.

"We are trying to provide a forum for all candidates to give their views on children's issues," she said.

The forum began with the four state senate candidates, including Silver Persinger, Del. A. Donald McEachin, T. Hank Cook and Robert Owens. Each candidate had two minutes to answer each of the two questions he or she received, before a final 90 seconds to speak about the most pressing issue facing children in Virginia.

The eight House of Delegates candidates who attended the forum were given different questions but the same allotted time as the senate candidates. The candidates included Tom Herbert, Del. Jennifer McLellan, Will Shaw, Del. John O'Bannon III, RJ Gargiulo, Franklin Hall, William Grogan and Joseph Morrissey.

Foster care was an important topic during the forum, according to Shepherd. He asked the candidates what they believed could be done to help foster children succeed when they turn 18 years old. Persinger, a socialist running for the senate seat in the 9th District, said that Virginia should, "provide free college education to create a basis for a successful life."

He said that paying foster parents higher stipends and giving parents respite weekends away from their children would help foster parents better care for their children.

McEachin, a Democrat running for the 9th senate district, agreed that foster parents need more money. He also said that a pre-kindergarten initiative could aid foster children. McEachin said a pre-K program would lead to higher high school graduation rates, which could lower the percentage of those in poverty.

"We can't get away from the notion of poverty," he said.

Another issue Shepherd asked the candidates to address was juvenile justice. Many youths are forced to leave their communities and their support systems when they are put into juvenile detention facilities, he said.

"I would support small community-based facilities," said Shaw, a Democrat running in the 56th district. "We can't write [juvenile offenders] off as hardened criminals for life."

A program called "Scared Straight" has been unsuccessfully used for several years, according to O'Bannon, a Republican from the 73rd district.

"Scared Straight" brings troubled youth to adult prisons in an attempt to scare them into reforming their lives.

"It does not work," he said. "It puts them in the midst of their role models."

Throughout the forum, health care and education proved to be the most important issues for candidates.

"We are doing some weird things with Medicaid that I can't get my brain around," McEachin said.

He said Virginia's needs to look into the changes being made in the U.S. health care system and adopt the applicable changes that could help Virginia on the state level.

Perhaps the simplest answer to the health care question was given by Persinger.

"This is a very easy question to answer for a socialist," he said. "I think all children should have health care, and adults, too, should have health care. It should be a basic right for children in Virginia."

Although there was a joke about the current problems between the mayor and the Richmond board of education -- the mayor recently attempted to evict the school board from the Capitol -- education, specifically pre-K, was a serious topic for the candidates.

"You can tell those [children] who took pre-K by just listening to them speak," said Joseph Morrissey, a Democrat from the 74th district.

McEachin echoed Morrissey's statement. He said it was rare for a person with a high school diploma to be prosecuted in Richmond.

"Statistics show that the earlier a child is ready for school, the more likely that child is going to be a high school graduate," McEachin said.

According to Stewart, about 85 to 90 people attended the forum, the first of its kind that dealt with children's issues in Richmond.

Among the people who attended were members of Richmond's Spinning Your Web program. Although the forum was mandatory for those in the program, freshman Guilherme Annunciacao said he enjoyed the forum.

"I thought it was going to be boring, but these were issues that are going to affect our future and our children's futures," he said.

Annunciacao said that although he laughed at Persinger's quick answer about health care, he wished the socialist candidate would have elaborated his answer about giving health care to everyone.

"How do you do that if you are a socialist?" he said. "He didn't tell us that."

The Richmond forum was the first event of a four-part series addressing children's issues across the commonwealth. Forums will be held in Roanoke, Fairfax and the Hampton Roads area in the coming weeks.