State ranks low in measure of child well-being Kids Count survey puts Maryland 30th in country

March 29, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

She's a seventh-grader, pregnant and just a little scared. Brooke Blade would like nothing better than to defy the tough odds she and her child will face in life.

"People think we're babies having babies," complains the 14-year-old student at Baltimore's Paquin Junior-Senior High School for teen mothers. "Age is nothing but a number. It's what you have up in your head that counts."

But Brooke has to admit that she's not at all ready to provide the support her child will need. She is counting on her mother, her aunt and the child's father to pitch in while she goes to school, "at least to ninth grade" or with luck until high school graduation.

Like Brooke, an alarming number of new American families are starting out with disadvantages that probably will "guarantee the perpetuation of even grimmer problems for at least another generation," according to a new report on children's well-being.

Almost 9 percent of Maryland mothers giving birth to their first children -- and 11 percent nationwide -- are single teen-agers without high school diplomas, reports the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a Washington think tank.

Nearly 40 percent of new mothers in Maryland -- and 45 percent nationally -- face at least one of three risk factors: they are teen-agers, unmarried or haven't completed high school.

The odds are indeed stacked against those mothers' children, says Judith Weitz, who coordinates the center's Kids Count project sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"Each of these risks increases the chances that families will break up, be poor or be dependent on public assistance, and that their children will be neglected and fall behind in school," she says.

The Kids Count report also ranked the states on 10 measures of children's well-being, ranging from poverty to violent death rates.

Overall, despite its relative prosperity, Maryland ranked only 30th nationally. Children fared best in New Hampshire and worst in Mississippi, according to the report.

Among the study's findings were that:

* More than 3,000 Maryland youths were arrested in violent crimes in 1991, giving the state one of the highest juvenile arrest rates in the nation.

* The proportion of Maryland teen-agers graduating from high school on time dropped from 78 percent in 1985 to 71 percent in 1990.

* The state's infant mortality rate improved by 20 percent between 1985 and 1990, but Maryland still ranked only 31st in the country in that category.

* A huge gap exists between the richest and poorest children in Maryland and nationally. The median income of the top fifth of Maryland families with children ($72,000) was almost nine times the median for the bottom fifth ($8,400).

Nationally, conditions were worst for black and Latino children. Nearly half of black children and more than a third of Hispanic children lived in poverty, compared to 11 percent of white children.

Black youths were five times as likely as white youths to be arrested in a violent crime, and the violent death rate for black teens shot up by 78 percent between 1985 and 1990.

When poorly educated teen-agers have babies, those children are more likely than most to contribute to more social pathology in the future, Ms. Weitz says.

By the time they are in elementary school, 79 percent of the children of single teen mothers who haven't completed high school live in poverty, and most rank in the bottom half of their class academically, the report says.

Such children often continue the cycle of poverty by starting vulnerable families of their own at a young age. More than 360,000 children were born in 1990 to single teens in the United States, including more than 6,600 in Maryland, according to the report.

"Kids who are from poor families and are not successes in school are much more likely to seek some sense of self and identity

through [sexual] relationships before they are ready for the responsibility," Ms. Weitz says.

Paquin School tries to eliminate one risk factor by helping teens who are pregnant or already mothers to finish high school.

Anitra Holland, 18, has already returned to Paquin after giving birth last month to a 6-pound, 15-ounce daughter, Autumn Ockimey. Ms. Holland works a $5.50-an-hour job caring for retarded people by night and attends school by day. She is due to graduate this spring.

"I'm going real good because I'm going to school, and in the process I'm making enough money to take care of me and my baby," she says.

Student Kimberly Lucas, 21, has two sons. The first, Brian Drayton, 8, was born when she was in middle school. Three years ago, she had another son, Jean-Bernard Michel Jr. Now she uses the Norplant contraceptive to prevent more births.

Ms. Lucas, who works as a beautician, expects to graduate from Paquin this spring. "It's hard to tell kids to get their high school diploma when you didn't do it yourself," she says.

She has moved to the suburbs with her two boys because "I didn't want my children to fall into being statistics, too. I feel my children could be at risk for getting shot. I have moved far out now, but it still could happen."

In fact, the Kids Count report shows that Maryland's teen violent death rate jumped by 37 percent from 1985 to 1990, when 239 violent deaths (homicides, suicides and accidents) were recorded in the 15-to-19 age group.

Ms. Weitz says the findings show the need for the nation to invest in preventive programs such as Head Start and to serve families' needs in accessible school or neighborhood settings.

Principal Rosetta Stith says Paquin School already provides on-site day care for students' children and plans to offer "complete primary health care for mothers and babies" next year.

"This is prevention right here," says Dr. Stith, gesturing to Brooke Blade and her unborn child. "Hopefully, what we do with this population will make the Kids Count stuff null and void."

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