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N.Idaho Kids At Higher Risk, Study Finds

Tue., Feb. 10, 1998, midnight

Chances are that if you’re a child living in a single-parent home in North Idaho, you live with your mother and you’re poor.

You’re also at greater risk of having health and behavioral problems because of inadequate prenatal care and fewer opportunities to develop your mind.

If you’re a girl, you might be at greater risk of teen pregnancy and having an at-risk child yourself.

That’s what the statistics say in the 1997 Idaho Kids Count report released today. The report gives a county-by-county breakdown of the well-being of children.

The people behind Kids Count want to help break the cycle of poverty and lost opportunities by arming communities with information about their children’s welfare.

“It provides evidence that more effort and resources need to be devoted toward getting mothers into prenatal care earlier in their pregnancy,” said Helen Stroebel, Idaho Kids Count director.

“We would like to see parents and other community members become more active in their communities in assuring that all children have a healthy start, that parenting education and support programs be more available for families,” she said.

The Panhandle has a slightly higher rate of children with risk factors associated with poor performance in school than the rest of the state. Those risk factors include poor prenatal care, low maternal weight gain, and use of alcohol or tobacco during pregnancy.

In North Idaho, 35 percent of all infants have one or more of these risk factors, while statewide the percentage is 32 percent.

The Panhandle also has a higher percentage of children living in poverty than elsewhere in the state; 18.4 percent compared with 16.2 percent.

In nearly every North Idaho county, three to four times as many children who live in single-parent families live with their mothers.

That’s significant because single-parent fathers typically make twice as much money as single-parent mothers.

The income of most single-parent mothers falls below the poverty level, which was $16,036 in 1996.

Stroebel said money is often the limiting factor in providing prenatal care.

“If a woman doesn’t have a regular physician, and no health insurance coverage, it makes getting into prenatal care that much more difficult,” she said.

Another spin-off to poor prenatal care is infant mortality. Idaho’s infant mortality rate is lower than the national average, but the Panhandle’s rate, 7.7 deaths per 1,000 births, is close to the national rate of 8 deaths per 1,000.

In Spokane County, the rate for the same time period (1994-96) was 6.5 deaths per 1,000.

The most common causes of infant deaths in Idaho last year, according to the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, are congenital defects (some of which can be caused by poor nutrition) and general conditions such as low birth-weight, infections and respiratory distress.

Prenatal care is available through a state Healthy Connections program that offers Medicaid coverage for women who make less than 133 percent of the poverty level. The Women, Infants and Children program also provides education and vouchers for nutritional foods for women in need.

Last year the state served 31,542 women and children through WIC, but state health and welfare officials are unsure how many other families are eligible for help.

Social workers are certain, however, that more people could use help in early childhood education. According to the report, 51 percent of 3-to 5-year-olds were not enrolled in a nursery school or kindergarten during 1991-95, the second-highest rate in the nation. Kindergarten is not required in Idaho.

Moreover, only 48 percent of parents with children under age 7 read to their children on a daily basis.

The Head Start program, which provides parenting and preschool education for low-income families, has a waiting list of more than 130. Of the 247 families now enrolled, 48 percent were single parents, mostly women, said North Idaho Head Start director Doug Fagerness.

Only 20 percent of eligible families are enrolled in Head Start, but the program lacks the funds to expand. State Sens. Jack Riggs and Shawn Keough of North Idaho are sponsoring legislation to add $1.5 million in state funds to Head Start. Idaho is one of only nine states that doesn’t help fund Head Start or other pre-school programs.

The money would add a class to every Head Start program in Idaho, Fagerness said.

“The most significant difference Head Start makes is in statistics with lower involvement with juvenile justice, lower teenage pregnancy rates, lower high school drop-outs, social indicators like that,” Fagerness said.

North Idaho Head Start, with the help of several community organizations, recently won a five-year, $5 million federal grant to launch Early Head Start. The new program will provide prenatal education and follow through until the child turns 3.

That’s exactly the kind of thing Idaho Kids Count is promoting.

“Our report focuses not only on getting kids off to a healthy start, but on the nurturing and stimulation to get them off to a good education in their early years,” Stroebel said.

Research in the last several years has shown that birth to age 3 is a critical time in the development of children.

“Windows of development are open in those early years,” Fagerness said. “To squander them is crazy.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Report on kids


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