State report on children and youth provides overview

By Jennifer Lassiter
Star Staff
jlassiter@starhq.com

   The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth (TCCY) released a report today that provides a glimpse of the well-being of the state's children. The report, "KIDS COUNT: The State of the Child in Tennessee 2003", brings together information on measures of health, education, child welfare, economics and demographics.
   "The State of the Child documents how well children are doing in each county in Tennessee," Linda O'Neal, TCCY executive director, said. "By knowing where we stand, we know where we need to focus efforts for improvements."
   According to O'Neal, the report can adequately reflect how public policy significantly affects our youth within the region and Carter County. Graduated drivers licensing and the new seat belt law are examples of how laws can decrease the number of teen deaths.
   The book contains information on 33 indicators of child well-being, 11 primary indicators and 22 secondary indicators. For the first time this year, three-year averages are provided for primary indicators, giving more accurate and stable information.
   "Children need a good foundation for success in school and life," said O'Neal. "Adequate prenatal care and quality early childhood education for at-risk children are two essential elements in providing all children with the opportunity to achieve their dreams, but less than half of the children who need quality early childhood education programs are receiving them.
   "Quality early childhood education is the best strategy for long-term economic development in Tennessee as we produce a better educated workforce," O'Neal said.
   The book includes an overview of the importance of quality early childhood education, health care and other services young children need to enhance their prospects of being successful.
   During a three-year period from 1999-2001, nearly 2,000 Tennessee infants died before reaching the age of one, enough babies each year to have filled 11 full-sized school buses if they had reached school age.
   In 2002, more than one-third of Tennessee school children participated in the free and reduced-price lunch program, more than in the two previous years. More children were receiving Families First and Food Stamps, too. And one in four children under age 6 was receiving WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplemental food benefits.
   In a two-year period from 2000-2002, approximately 3,582 students in Carter County received school lunches.
   The book reports an average of nearly 6 percent of Tennessee's children were referred to juvenile court during any year of the three-year period ending in 2002. This included neglected or abused children, unruly children and delinquent children.
   "Other TCCY data indicate a higher percentage of the children referred to juvenile court are members of minority groups," O'Neal said. "TCCY is pleased the Legislature's Select Committee on Children and Youth is joining the TCCY Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Task Force to look at the causes of this problem over the next few months. The Task Force will work with the Select Committee and affected communities to identify strategies and solutions to reduce minority over-representation in the juvenile justice system."
   The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth is an independent agency created by the Tennessee General Assembly. Its primary mission is to advocate for improvements in the quality of life for Tennessee children and families. Partial funding for TCCY's KIDS COUNT program is provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropic foundation devoted exclusively to disadvantaged children.
   What does it take to ensure a child is ready to succeed? According to the KIDS COUNT report there are several factors that contribute to a child's well-being:
   * Adequate prenatal care sets the stage for a healthy baby.
   * Low-birthweight babies face serious health problems as newborns and are at increased risk of long-term disability.
   * Parenting education and family support services help provide babies with appropriate care for healthy development.
   * The importance of nutrition, stimulation and support for early brain development cannot be over-emphasized.
   * Quality early childhood education for high risk pre-school children increases their prospects for success in school and in life.
   * Fewer than half the estimated 38,000 at risk 3- and 4-year-olds in Tennessee (46 percent) are participating in either a Head Start program or Tennessee's Early Childhood Education pilot program.