Re-stacking the odds for children at risk

One family's triumph helps point way for others, group says

May 18, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The odds were stacked against the baby in Tammy Lunn's belly.

Tammy was just 14; her boyfriend, David, only 16. They got married, pushed into it by their own parents, who told them they'd have to lie in the bed they'd made.

Over the years, the young parents from East Baltimore struggled mightily. David, a welder, fell into drug use, living with the family sporadically while Tammy worked two jobs to make ends meet. After David got clean, he was shot six times trying to reclaim their son's stolen bicycle.

Reading this far, you might already have written off their children.

Yet Tameika Lunn, that long-ago baby born to a young girl, will graduate with honors next week with a double degree from the Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Institute of Music. She plans to attend George Washington University law school next year and already is pursuing a career as an opera singer. Her brother, David Jr., is a star basketball player at the McDonogh School in Baltimore County.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which releases its 10th annual Kids Count Data Book today, holds up the Lunns as a model of a "high-risk" family that rewrote the story of low expectations so many pundits and policy-makers have constructed for them. In Baltimore and 21 other cities, the foundation has begun an initiative to try to thwart the trends evident in its own statistics.

The report, which uses 1996 data to rank conditions for children from state to state based on 10 "indicators" of health, education and economic status, has in a way turned on itself this year. While reciting the statistics that show children in high-risk families often fail to thrive, the foundation has embarked on an effort to show the numbers can change markedly if communities in crisis are connected to the thriving world outside their boundaries.

`A lot of potential'

"There is a lot of potential and aspiration in families that have the profile that predicts crummy outcomes for their kids," said Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Baltimore-based foundation. "You get this sort of self-defeating resignation that we see as evident in a lot of public policy.

"We're trying to broaden our sense of what it is that allows families to climb out of disadvantage."

Called "Making Connections," the new Casey initiative will concentrate less on overarching, expensive programs and more on the grass roots: civic groups, churches, political leaders and residents from neighborhood to neighborhood. It will attempt to link families whose conditions aren't improving with those who have benefited from low unemployment and the booming stock market.

Urban-suburban schism

Baltimore and Washington are prime examples of the schism reflected in the report the last several years. Both cities, surrounded by thriving suburbs, have become clusters of "stuck" families who fail to share in the growth.

Maryland, ranked 24th in the nation in this year's report, has improved its rate of high-school dropouts and unemployed teens. The state's child death rate also was down, but Maryland fared poorly in its rate of babies with low birth weights, ranking 43rd in that category.

The state's overall ranking improved eight places from last year, due in part to a change in the way Kids Count is calculated. The foundation no longer includes arrest rates for violent juvenile crime in its calculations, a figure that historically has hurt Maryland.

But Nelson said Maryland, which consistently has one of the highest per-capita income levels, should be doing better.

Twelve percent of Maryland's 1.37 million children were deemed "high risk," compared with 14 percent nationally. In the District of Columbia, the number was 39 percent. But, said Nelson, "if you looked at Baltimore and said it was the state of Baltimore, you'd be looking at the same kinds of statistics."

The report defines "high risk" as those families in which parents are high-school dropouts, have only one parent in the home, incomes below the poverty line or no steady, full-time employment, among other factors. According to the report, children living in families with four or more of those factors are twice as likely to have trouble concentrating and nearly five times as likely to be in poor health.

Powerful examples

Those predictors might have described the Lunns, who now live in Bolton Hill. But Tammy Lunn said her children fared differently because she and her husband tried hard to keep them from having their own children too young and falling into street life.

They didn't hesitate to point to themselves as powerful examples. Using scholarship programs and the encouragement of teachers who saw their children as gifted, they sent Tameika and David to prestigious private schools they had never dreamed were open to them.

"I think it's just the unity that David and I have," said Tammy Lunn, who works at a health-care company. "We would do anything for Tameika and David to have a better start than what we had."

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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