Teen-age trauma is on rise

April 25, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

The battle to improve the lot of America's 63.6 million children produced significant progress in recent years among infants and young adolescents, but teen-agers were caught in a worsening web of violence, pregnancy and failure to complete high school, a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found.

While infant mortality, poverty and the death rates dropped among children aged 1 to 14, the number of teen-agers arrested for violent crimes jumped 50 percent between 1985 and 1991. Teen deaths from violence rose 13 percent and the proportion of births to single teen mothers increased 20 percent, according to the study, which used government data to chronicle the changes in childrens' lives between 1985 and 1991.

"Kids from the time they are newborn until their early teens seem to be doing fairly well," said Douglas W. Nelson, executive director of the foundation, which released the study today. "It is when they begin to make the transition to adulthood that the lack of opportunity and hope translates into bad outcomes."

Underscoring how shifts in the economy have vastly reduced job opportunities for low-skilled workers, Mr. Nelson said: "There are kids growing up in communities where they don't see any future. Then, they make terrible mistakes."

The study by the Washington-based foundation, which finances programs to help disadvantaged children, found that a quarter of those under the age of 6 live in poverty, with 58 percent of these in female- headed households. Some 750,000 children live without complete plumbing or kitchen facilities, the study said.

The report said nearly 4 million youngsters, 6.2 percent of the children in the United States, are growing up in "severely distressed neighborhoods" -- places where more than half the lTC households are poor, nearly a quarter of 16- to 19-year olds have dropped out of high school, and almost 60 percent of men worked less than half the time during the previous year, said William P. O'Hare, coordinator of the study.

More than 80 percent of the children in such neighborhoods were black or Latino, the study said, though those groups account for just one-fourth of the children in the country.

"There are kids in these neighborhoods who turn out great, but in terms of life's chances, these neighborhoods lower your odds of a successful transition into adulthood," said Mr. O'Hare.

"There is a point at which disinvestment, institutional erosion, service deterioration and demoralization create a negative momentum that is simply too strong for many individuals and families to overcome," concluded the foundation's report, which proposed empowerment zones with tax breaks to combat pockets of poverty. These zones will be established in some communities later this year.

Among the findings:

* Single teen-agers accounted for an increasing portion of all births, 9 percent in 1991 contrasted with 7.5 percent six years earlier.

* Juvenile arrests rates for violent crimes -- homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- increased to 457 per 100,000 people in 1991, up from 305 in 1985. The rate more than doubled in six states.

* The teen violent death rate among those aged 15 to 19 -- reflecting deaths from homicide, suicide or accidents -- increased 13 percent to 71.1 per 100,000 in 1991, from 62.8 in 1985. While teen deaths from accidents dropped 15 percent, deaths due to homicide doubled. Every two hours, a child dies of a gunshot wound, the study said.

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