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National report ranks county kids' wellbeing

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Children in the state [of Missouri] are facing increasing challenges brought on by higher levels of poverty, a lack of affordable health care and a lack of high-quality education opportunities for all Missouri's children."

Citizens for Missouri's Children reached that conclusion in its 2008 Kids Count study. Ten major variables in the quality of life impacting children were measured for all 114 counties in the state, as well as for the city of St. Louis. The variables generally showed conditions were worst for children than in the base years of 2003 or earlier.

Barry and Lawrence counties have followed the general statewide trend in showing worsening conditions overall from the 2003 base. However, compared to 2007, Barry County showed improvement in seven of 10 categories. Lawrence County only showed improvement in four categories.

The Kids Count study measures child well being through specific incidents, such as child abuse and neglect, child deaths, out-of-home placements and the number of births to mothers without a high school diploma. Comparisons are also made in bigger trends, including the number of children enrolled in free and reduced meal programs at schools, high school drop-outs, low birth weights and the number of teens giving birth.

"By reviewing annually the status of Missouri's children, we hope to educate the public about whether our children have the resources and support needed to develop into healthy, well-rounded adults," said Scott Gee, executive director of Citizens for Missouri's Children. "Together, as a community, we can work to develop policies to ensure that our state's children do count."

Statewide, a decrease in child abuse and neglect, violent teen deaths, the number of child deaths under the age of 15, infant mortality, out-of-home placements and births to mothers without high school diplomas has been found.

"The incident rates in each of these areas remains high," said Gee, "which underscores how much more work needs to be done."

Bi-county results

* A decrease in child abuse and neglect was documented in both Barry and Lawrence counties, from the base year and between 2007 and 2008. In the other five areas of statewide improvement, results in the two local counties did not consistently show conditions were better for children.

* In violent deaths of teens, both local counties have seen more incidents since the base year. Both counties had one more case in 2008 than the year when counting started. The 15 cases in Barry County in 2008 were down two from 2007, while the 12 cases in Lawrence County reflected an increase of two over the previous year.

* In the death of children ages 1 to 14, Lawrence County started out with a higher base, eight incidents versus five for Barry County, and has had fewer cases since. Lawrence County had four cases in 2008, one less than in 2007, and is ranked 12th in the state for having the fewest child deaths. Barry County is ranked 82nd in the state for having the fewest child deaths. The 13 cases in 2008 reflected an increase of one over 2007.

* In the number of deaths of infants, both Barry and Lawrence counties showed increases over the base year. The 19 cases in Barry County in 2008 were down one from 2007. Lawrence County had 23 cases in 2008, one higher than in 2007.

Both Barry and Lawrence counties have shown increases in the number of low weight babies born since the base year, but both showed improvements over 2007. With 178 cases in 2008, Lawrence County ranked 38th in the state for having the fewest babies of low birth weight, but ranked 89th for child mortality. Barry County had 214 low weight babies in 2008, getting a state ranking of 78th, while Barry County's ranking for child mortality was 65th.

* In out-of-home placements, numbers in Barry and Lawrence counties both increased in 2008 over 2007, though both have shown marked improvement over the base year. Lawrence County is ranked 75th in the state for having the fewest out-of-home placements, and Barry County is ranked 83rd.

* Births to mothers without high school diplomas showed a marked difference between the two local counties in the past year. In Barry County, the number of cases dropped by 11 between 2008 and 2007. In Lawrence County, the number increased by 19. Lawrence County is ranked 102nd in the state for having the fewest births to mothers without diplomas. Barry County is ranked 110th.

Counties follow state trends

In four areas statewide trends have shown trends to have worsened for children. The bi-county area generally followed the same trends:

* Statewide the number of students enrolled in free and reduced price meal programs at schools, a generally recognized indicator of economic stress, has increased by 2.5 percent over the base year. In both Barry and Lawrence counties, the number has risen by over 3 percent. In Barry County the number of children matching this poverty indicator dropped by 33 between 2007 and 2008. In Lawrence County the number rose by 38. Barry County is ranked 80th in the state for the number of children qualifying for reduced price meals. Lawrence County ranks 86th.

* Births to teens has increased statewide by 2.6 per 1,000 teenage girls since the study started. Barry and Lawrence counties started with the same base number in this category. Lawrence County has cut that number by 20 percent, the only local exception to the state trend. Barry County's count has risen by 10 percent. Lawrence County is ranked 65th for having the fewest number of births to teenage mothers. Barry County is ranked 101st. The number of cases in both counties dropped between 2007 and 2008.

* Low birth weight in infants has increased statewide by one-third of a percent over the base year. In both Barry and Lawrence counties, the trend increased by half of 1 percent.

* The drop-out rate from high school has shown a statewide increase of a third of 1 percent over the base year. Numbers in Barry County have gone up 1 percent, and rose by three cases between 2007 and 2008. Lawrence County numbers are up by almost 1.5 percent, jumping up by 25 cases between 2007 and 2008. Barry County is ranked 67th in the state for having the fewest number of dropouts. Lawrence County is ranked 87th.

Overall rankings

In composite rankings for overall measurements, Lawrence County was ranked 91st in the state, while Barry County was tallied at 99th.

In general statistics not tracked for comparison, both counties showed a marked decrease in the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood from 2003 and in the number of children receiving Medicaid or subsidized child care, compared to the base year.

The percentage of juvenile law referrals in Barry County was up by 15 percent from the base year, compared to an increase of 32 percent in Lawrence County.

Citizens for Missouri's Children is a social issues consortium focusing on public policy. The organization backs a variety of legislative solutions to assist the welfare of children.

"Many of the declines that we are seeing, such as low birth-weight infants, can be traced to the lack of access to adequate health care," said Sherry Tucker, chairman of the organization's board of directors. "Nearly 150,000 Missouri children currently lack health care coverage."

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