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State slips in U.S. rankings of child well-being


Maryland has made progress in lowering the teen birth rate and reducing the number of children living in poverty, but it is still struggling with high teen death and infant mortality rates, according to an annual report released today by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Although the state posted improved scores in five of 10 survey areas, including decreases in child death and high school dropout rates, it slipped in ranking from 19th among all states in 2005 to 23rd this year. Maryland ranked 27th in the nation for child well-being in 2004.

Nationwide, the Kids Count survey found that there were more than 13 million American children living in poverty in 2004, an increase of nearly a million since 2000, the baseline year for data. The nation also witnessed increases in the percentage of low-birth-weight babies and children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment.

Improvements occurred in several areas, however, noted William O'Hare, a senior fellow at the Casey Foundation and author of the report, which tracks the needs and conditions of the nation's most disadvantaged children and families. The number of teens dropping out of high school continues to decrease, as does the teen birth rate, he said.

But in Maryland, the survey spotlights stubborn social issues, including an 8 percent increase in deaths among youths ages 15 to 19 and infants. In 2000, the state reported 71 teen deaths per 100,000, according to the Kids Count survey. In 2003, the most recent data available, there were 77 deaths. Infant deaths are also on the rise, with 7.6 deaths per 1,000 in 2000 and 8.2 deaths in 2003.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said he is working to decrease the number of infant deaths in the city. He is set to expand a "Safe Sleep" program to teach parents the right way to put infants to bed: alone, on their backs, and in a crib.

Still, he said, there is more behind the state's infant mortality rate than deaths due to suffocation.

"There are a whole bunch of things going on," Sharfstein said. "It is a reflection, in many ways, of poverty and its associated problems, including drug use."

Sharfstein said that expanded drug treatment could also affect the number of infant deaths.

The annual Kids Count survey also shows a 6 percent increase in low-birth-weight babies - those weighing 5.5 pounds or less - a trend that was also noted by survey officials last year. Surveyors speculate that the increase could be due in part to multiple births among middle- and upper-income women who have undergone fertility treatment. But the surveyors also caution that it could also indicate poor prenatal care and nutrition among low-income women.

For the first time, Kids Count also reported on the percentage of children younger than age 6 in family-based day care. In Maryland, nearly 124,000 children younger than age 6 were being cared for by a relative, friend or home-based day care provider in 2003, a figure that represents about one-fourth of all children in the state in that age group, according to survey officials. Nationwide, about 6.5 million children younger than age 6 spend all or part of their time in a home-based or family-based setting.

Casey Foundation President Douglas W. Nelson said he hopes the survey information about home-based or family-based day care will result in federal and state programs that will provide training and support for providers, who often have little formal training in child development. Otherwise, children might not be getting the language and reading practice they need to perform well in school.

"Kids who start out behind tend to stay behind," Nelson said. "So getting kids to an even start is a huge issue."


To read the report, go to baltimoresun.com/kidscount.

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