Friday, December 22, 2006

Kentucky's child welfare system is ranked 42 in the nation

State low on child welfare survey -
Poverty, dropout rates key issues
Estep, Bill and Linda Blackford. Lexington Herald-Leader, June 27, 2006.

Pervasive childhood poverty and a chronic high-school dropout problem in Kentucky contribute to a poor ranking for the state - again - in an annual survey of children's well-being.

Kentucky ranked 42nd among the 50 states in the 2006 Kids Count report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, released today. Kentucky also ranked 42nd last year; 2005 and 2006 were the worst overall showings for the state in the 17 years the analysis has been published.

"I think the overall message is that Kentucky's kids have never been in a more desperate situation," said Terry Brooks, executive director of . Kentucky Youth Advocates, a non-profit organization.

That's a troubling trend, he said. Not only is the state falling behind the national effort, it compares poorly with its own earlier record on some measures, he said.

The state's poorest showing in the new report was on economic indicators and the high-school dropout rate. Experts said that's worrisome because those indicators can presage future problems.

The study found that 25 percent of children in the state lived in poverty in 2004 -- making it 46th in the nation. The overall rate in the U.S. was 18 percent.

The rate of childhood poverty in Kentucky increased 14 percent from 2000 to 2004, the report said.

On another economic measure, Kentucky ranked 45th in the percentage of children living in homes where parents don't have fulltime, year-round jobs.

The Casey Foundation report found that between 2000 and 2004, Kentucky was one of only nine states that did not show improvement in the rate of teenagers 16 to 19 who were high-school dropouts. The national rate improved by 27 percent.

In 2004, the year with the most recent available numbers, 10 percent of state residents ages 16 to 19 were dropouts, compared with 8 percent nationwide, giving the state a rank of 41 on that measure. The dropout numbers are particularly high among African-American and Hispanic high school students in the state.

And 11 percent of Kentucky's 16-to-19 age group wasn't in school or working, putting the state 42nd on that measure.

The dropout rate is a crucial measure both for students and for the overall economic health of the state, said Robert Rodosky, research director for the Jefferson County schools. Numerous studies have shown that education levels are directly related to income levels.

"The way demographics are going we need to have skilled people in the workforce," Rodosky said. "Unfortunately what happens is when a kid drops out they may not have the skills that are needed, especially for the jobs that are needed, which are fairly high tech."

Not all news is bad
The report was not entirely gloomy. Among 10 indicators of children's well-being, Kentucky improved in four: infant mortality; the number of babies born to teen mothers; the percentage of people 16 to 19 who aren't in school or working; and the death rate among teens 15 to 19.

Brooks also said that if Kentucky continues and expands efforts to make secondary education more engaging, challenging and relevant for students, it could mean real improvement in the dropout rate.

During recent years, state legislators and education officials have increased the number of credits required for graduation, added end-of-course tests and adopted a law requiring all juniors to take the ACT exam to see how ready they are for college. In addition, starting in the fall, every student will have an individual education plan to chart his or her progress.

"I think just as a society we've become complacent in comparison to the rest of the world, and it's probably most obvious in the high schools," said Roger Marcum, superintendent of Marion County schools. "The expectation is that our education has been superior. We're finding that's not true."

The state showed no change on two measures -- the dropout rate and number of children in single-parent homes -- and slipped backward on four: the percentage of babies with low birth weight; the death rate among children 1 to 14, which increased 9 percent from 2000 to 2003; the poverty rate; and the percentage of children whose parents don't have secure employment.

Brooks said the state has adopted measures such as a graduated driver's license, a helmet law for ATV riders under age 16 and a primary seat-belt law that could improve the state's future ranking on child-safety measures.

Next logical step
The next logical step on that front would be adoption of a law requiring booster seats in cars for certain children, said Brooks and Tara Grieshop-Goodwin, Kids Count coordinator for Kentucky.

Regular seat belts are designed to protect an average-size adult. Experts say children under 4 feet, 9 inches tall need a booster seat to safely use seat belts, said Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, an advocate for booster seats in Kentucky.

Dr. Susan Pollack, a pediatrician at Kentucky Children's Hospital, said it's clear booster seats make children safer.

The Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that children in car seats or booster seats were 28 percent less likely to be killed in a crash than children wearing seat belts alone.

Pollack said 36 states and the District of Columbia require booster seats for children. "We're getting down to the last again," she said of Kentucky.

Stein has sponsored booster-seat legislation several times, to no avail. A bill requiring booster seats for children under age 8, between 40 and 57 inches tall and weighing less than 80 pounds passed the House this year, but died in the Senate.

Legislators use wonderful cliches about children being our future, Stein said, but too often "when it comes right down to it, we don't vote that way."

Alarming statistics
Kentucky has improved in state rankings in only four of 10 categories that assess how Kentucky's children are doing. Only four states rank lower than Kentucky for percent of children living in poverty.

Ranked No. 42
Kentucky is ranked 42nd in the nation in a state-by-state analysis of the welfare of children based on 10 measures of child well-being. That's the same as its ranking last year, the lowest spot ever for the state.

Top 10 states Rank
New Hampshire 1
Vermont 2
Connecticut 3
Minnesota 4
Iowa 5
Utah 6
New Jersey 7
Nebraska 8
North Dakota 9
Massachusetts 10

Bottom 10 states Rank
North Carolina 41
Kentucky 42
Alabama 43
Georgia 44
Arkansas 45
Tennessee 46
South Carolina 47
New Mexico 48
Louisiana 49
Mississippi 50

Source: National Kids Count Book project by the Annie E. Casey Foundation


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