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Child poverty, abuse and neglect cloud future

Kids Count in Michigan also finds declines in child deaths, teen births

Childhood poverty, abuse and neglect continue to rise in Michigan, but child deaths are down dramatically, the latest Kids Count report finds.

The Kids Count in Michigan Data Book 2009, released Tuesday, examines county level trends in child well-being with a focus on Place Matters, looking at trends in rural, midsized and urban counties. The report ranks the 83 counties on 15 measures of child well-being with No. 1 ranking being the best in the state.

“The data certainly show a mix of trends both good and bad,’’ said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, a senior research associate at the Michigan League for Human Services and director of the Kids Count in Michigan project. “Michigan’s high unemployment and declining family income take a toll on kids’ lives, but we are seeing improvements in some areas of health and education.’’

Childhood poverty rose by 6 percent between 2005 and 2007, with nearly one in every five children in Michigan living in poverty. The number of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunches rose 14 percent between 2006 and 2008—more than two of every five public school K-12 students now participate in the School Lunch Program at free or reduced prices.

Confirmed victims of abuse or neglect jumped an alarming 16 percent between 2000 and 2008, with nearly 30,000 children found to be abused or neglected in 2008.

But the report also found positive trends. Childhood deaths dropped 18 percent, teen deaths fell by 11 percent and infant mortality declined 4 percent between 2000 and

2007. Births to teens declined 20 percent over the decade.

The report tracked dramatic differences among the county groups, based on population size. Teens living in rural areas with total population under 20,000, for example, had much higher death rates (82 deaths per 100,000 teens), in part due to the danger of high-risk country roads. The rate of deaths in urban and midsized areas was 56 deaths and, 64 deaths, respectively, per 100,000 teens.

Among other county group trends:

· Rural counties had much higher rates of child poverty and higher participation in the Medicaid program;

· Midsized (population between 20,000 and 65,000) and rural counties had much higher rates of abuse and neglect than urban areas;

· Urban counties (population over 65,000) had significantly higher rates of low birth weight babies.

The largest improvements were in education. The share of students not considered proficient in math improved dramatically between 2003 and 2008 – 65 percent improvement for fourth graders and 47 percent for eighth-graders. On a national test, however, Michigan student math achievement for these same grades remained flat over roughly the same period.

The rate of high school dropouts also declined, by 6 percent, between 2007 and 2008. Michele Corey, director of community advocacy for Michigan’s Children, a partner in the Kids Count in Michigan project, said Michigan is poised to keep improving the dropout rates.

“We have unprecedented engagement of the private sector, supporting research, innovation in Michigan and around the nation, and renewed public sector attention,’’ she said. “Unfortunately, if we continue to cut programs that support students, we won’t be able to take advantage of this unique opportunity.”

This is the first data book that omits trends for juveniles in custody. As the number of juvenile delinquent in state custody declines and the number in county custody increases, there is no uniform collection of statewide data concerning the custody of juvenile delinquents.

“It’s troubling that we know so little about juveniles in custody while policymakers are making critical adjustments to the system,’’ Zehnder-Merrell said.

Kids Count in Michigan is a collaboration of the Michigan League for Human Services, which researches and writes the reports, and Michigan’s Children, which assists with dissemination of the data to communities across the state. The annual data book is available from the Michigan League for Human Services and on the web at www.milhs.org.

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