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Child advocates express concern for area children

St. Francois County beat the state averages on six statistics for child well-being, according to the most recent Kids Count report, but it is a dubious distinction – and one that local child advocates are concerned about.

St. Francois County rates beat state rates on births to mothers without a high school diploma, child death, child abuse and neglect, births to teens and violent deaths. And there were more students on free and reduced lunches, according to the report.

The county had the same number of low birthweight infants as the state, fewer infant deaths, fewer out-of-home placements, and fewer high school drop-outs.

Mediocrity is not the goal, Al Sullivan, director of the St. Francois County Community Partnership said, but he pointed out getting to the state’s average on all 10 of the report’s indicators would be a significant improvement for the county.

“It’s a long haul type of thing,” he added. “You don’t turn things around overnight.”

Sullivan and Meg Stevenson, director of Children’s Haven, organized a workshop focusing on prevention of child abuse and neglect that concluded in September of last year.

County residents working in a variety of fields related to child health and well-being have undertaken projects to improve things as a result of the conference, but Sullivan pointed out it is too soon to tell from the Kids Count report whether they have made a difference.

“This is motivating,” Stevenson said. “While the report shows we’ve improved slightly from one year to the next on child abuse and neglect cases, we are still much worse than state averages.”

Stevenson said she felt that should spur the task force that met on child abuse and neglect in 2004 and which will be meeting again in March this year to work hard to bring the numbers down to state averages.

The 2004 Kids Count report annually compiles statistics on 10 indicators of child well-being and compares current figures to those from a base year. On statistics that are too small, data is compiled from more than one year.

According to the 2004 report’s findings for St. Francois County, an increasing number of students were enrolled in free and reduced lunches for 2003 as compared to the base year 1999, there have been more low birthweight infants and births to teens and child deaths have increased, as have child abuse and neglect cases and out-of-home placements.

However, some of those same factors that the report says worsened when compared to the base year were improvements over figures released in last year’s report. Comparing the current year statistics from the 2004 Kids Count to the current year in the 2003 report shows that low birthweight infants and infant mortality went down, as did child abuse and neglect and births to teens.

Some of the statistics that worsened according to the report may actually be signs of better reporting or improved access. For example, the numbers of children enrolled in free and reduced lunches has steadily increased, but many districts in recent years have made a concerted effort to get all students to fill out forms for the program even if they don’t want the lunches. The reason for many schools’ actions is that program’s numbers are tied to some sources of state funding.

One district went so far as to randomly give away prizes to students just for filling out the forms, even if the student did not necessarily qualify for the lunch program.

Better technology has also made the program truly anonymous for participating students. Whereas students used to get a colored lunch card to use in the lunch line, many schools now use technology to scan a card that looks the same for all students.

Several other numbers in the report indicate positives for child well-being, but don’t figure directly into the indicators being tracked.

Enrollment in the MC+ program, which provides insurance for the children of many working poor families, has increased dramatically. In 1999, only 34 percent of children were enrolled in the program and advocates in the county said many people who qualified weren’t well enough informed about the child insurance program.

In 2003, 45 percent of children in the county were enrolled in the program, which has over the years expanded its eligibility to include children 19 and under.

Lisa Pirtle, who oversees several support programs in St. Francois County, said the program is better publicized than it was. Schools have gotten involved in advocating the program.

Public clinic immunizations have gone down, but rather than a drop in immunizations in general, health department officials pointed out schools still require the same immunizations for enrollment. They believe more people are getting the required shots through private doctors – a suggestion that is born out by the increase in MC+ enrollments. Those statistics would tend to indicate more children are able to get access to health care.

Enrollment in the WIC program, which was not tracked by the report, has also been steadily increasing. WIC provides pregnant and nursing mothers with supplemental food, to help ensure good nutrition for the developing child and the mother.

In 2001, the program served 18,069. In 2004, the it served 21,065. The increase comes about in part thanks to some eligibility changes which have made it easier to connect with mothers qualifying for the assistance, according to officials with that program.

In 1998, child support payments were 34.9 percent of parents paying into the state system. In 2003, the percent was 51.

Children with elevated blood lead levels was 19.8 percent in 1999, but in 2003 it was 5.4 percent. The St. Francois County Health Department undertook a campaign to reduce that number, a campaign that included free blood lead testing for a time.

Juvenile law violations dropped from 89.7 per 1,000 in 1999 to 77.9 per 1,000 in 2002.

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