Conditions for Md. children mixed, survey finds

violence remains high

Death rates lower, abuse is down

binge drinking, school suspensions worse

April 07, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A survey that examines the conditions for Maryland's children has found improvements, including a lower childhood death rate, increased child-support collections and a lower rate of credible reports of child abuse -- but a dispiriting rise in the number of school suspensions for violent behavior.

The Maryland "Kids Count" Fact Book, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore, found improvement in seven of 16 "indicators" used to measure overall conditions for young people. Those indicators range from infant mortality to poverty data.

The news is mixed. More mothers are getting early prenatal care for their babies. Fewer children are dying, and fewer teens are dying by violence.

But many kids report "binge drinking" before they're old enough to drive. While fewer young people are being arrested for crimes, the rate of those facing charges for violent crime remains high compared with the rest of the nation.

Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, the lead agency responsible for the survey, said that despite the improvements, she was discouraged that children in Maryland, the country's sixth-wealthiest state, aren't better off.

"The heart of it is really the need to invest in positive youth development," she said.

The study ranked Howard County as the best place for children to live in Maryland based on the indicators, and Baltimore City the worst. Carroll, Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties were ranked fourth, fifth, 12th and 13th, respectively.

Overall, Maryland ranked 32nd in the nation in last year's separate "Kids Count" survey conducted by the Casey Foundation, which measures children's well-being across the United States. The 1999 survey is due this spring.

Advocates were particularly concerned about figures that showed 13 percent of Maryland's children living in homes with incomes below the federal poverty line according to 1995 numbers, the most recent available.

But that number has fallen since 1993, when 15 percent were poor. Using 1996 data, the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University's School of Public Health reported that child poverty had fallen slightly across the nation.

Jackson also pointed to the number of juveniles arrested for violent crime, which, despite a recent drop, is 17 percent higher than in 1990. But that rate fell last year, a change state officials attribute to an increase in follow-up monitoring of offenders and to early intervention programs.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said: "Obviously Maryland has historically been well above the national average, but we've now begun to change the juvenile justice system."

The survey also found:

* Collection of court-ordered child support payments improved between 1993 and 1998, as it has across the country. Baltimore, traditionally the state's poorest-performing jurisdiction in this area, had a 20 percent increase in the rate of payment.

* Third-grade reading scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test improved across the state. But suspensions for verbal or physical attacks on teachers, staff or students rose markedly, from 38 per thousand students in 1992-1993 to 49 per thousand in 1997-1998. A smaller percentage of high school students graduated within four years -- a number that has fallen slightly every year since 1992.

* One of four Maryland 10th-graders reported that they had had five or more drinks of alcohol in a sitting within 30 days of the survey, compared with 20 percent in 1992. Jackson said researchers could not verify the students' reporting, but said she was "quite concerned" about the numbers.

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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