Cape County drops in Kids Count ranking

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cape Girardeau County improved in five of the indicators of child well-being in the 2008 Kids Count in Missouri statistics but declined in the other five.

From 2007 to 2008, Cape Girardeau County fell from 26th to 48th in the Kids Count rankings of all 114 Missouri counties and the city of St. Louis. It was one of six counties to drop more than 20 places.

Kids Count is a compilation of statistics of child well-being published annually by Citizens for Missouri's Children. The organization relies on data from more than 80 federal, state and local sources to produce Kids Count. The county rank is based on a composite of eight out of 10 total indicators of child well-being.

Scott Gee, Citizens for Missouri's Children executive director, said the 2008 statistics for Cape Girardeau County reflect a statewide trend influenced by the recession. Gee said the percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunches, for example, is linked to the unemployment rate.

"Everything that affects the parents in turn affects the children and the family," Gee said.

Gee said the purpose of Kids Count is to draw attention to the needs of children throughout the state. A drastic change in county rank from one year to the next could be an anomaly, he said. Gee urges local governments and not-for-profit organizations to use the information to build on positive trends and target areas for improvement.

Cape Girardeau County improved in five areas: decreases in the percent of births to mothers without high school diplomas, the infant mortality rate, the death rate of children ages 1 to 14, the rate of child abuse and neglect and the percent of births to teens ages 15 to 19.

But the county declined in the other five areas. There were increases in the percentage of students enrolled in free or reduced lunches, the percent of low birth-weight infants, the rate of children entered into out-of-home placements such as foster care, the annual percentage of high school dropouts and the percent of violent deaths of teens ages 15 to 19.

The death rate of children and the percentage of violent teen deaths are not included in the composite county rank, and in both of these categories the rates in Cape Girardeau County are lower than state averages.

Low birth weight

Jane Wernsman, assistant director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, said the increase in the number of women who smoke while pregnant could contribute to the increase in the rate of low birth-weight infants.

The center conducted a community health assessment in March, which indicates that the smoking rate among pregnant women in the county has been increasing since the early 1990s and has now exceeded the state average.

The federally funded Women, Infants and Children program already provides pregnant women with prenatal health education.

"We are looking at what is available in the community to help prevent or to help lower that smoking during pregnancy rate, which could include such things as smoking cessation programs, health education ... PSAs," Wernsman said.

Foster care

The rate of children entering out-of-home placements increased in Cape Girardeau County to 5.5 per 1,000, compared to the state rate of 3.8 per 1,000.

Out-of-home placements occur when a court or law enforcement authority determines that it is unsafe for a child to remain in his or her home. These children are placed in alternative locations such as foster care or group homes. Arleasha Mays, assistant communications director for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said many factors could play into the increase.

Mays said the Department of Social Services is constantly trying to educate the public about child abuse and neglect.

"We're optimistic that it is having an impact," she said.

Nancy Jernigan, executive director of the United Way of Southeast Missouri, said children in foster care are "very much at risk" of dropping out of school. The Cape Girardeau School Board has been aware of this issue for some time, said Kyle McDonald, board president.

"It is a big initiative that we as a school board and a school district administration have ... kind of put that on the forefront that this is a goal to reverse this trend," McDonald said.

Dropout rate

The Alternative Education Center, created in 1994, offers high school students additional attention through smaller classes. McDonald said the program has helped decrease the dropout rate, which was 5 percent last compared, compared to a statewide average of 3.7 percent. The Preparing for Academic Success program, which began in August, provides students with information about staying on track for graduation and preparations for post-graduation. McDonald said the effectiveness of the program will be evaluated in July.

To address the dropout rate throughout the school system, the United Way Education Solutions Team was created in February to suggest ways to mitigate dropout rate factors from preschool to high school. Jernigan said two subcommittees have already submitted recommendations.

The preschool subcommittee suggested methods for teaching parents about their role in educating their children. The elementary school subcommittee recommended procedures for improving literacy rates and following up when children are absent from school. Jernigan said attendance is a "big early indicator" of a student's likelihood to drop out.

The subcommittee for middle and junior high schools will report its recommendations Aug. 18 and the high school subcommittee will submit its report Sep. 15.

For more information on Citizens for Missouri's Children and to view the Kids Count survey, go to


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