Gaps in Md. Kids' Health, Wealth

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Maryland may be the second-wealthiest state in the country, but it ranks 24th on a series of indicators measuring the well-being of children, according to a report released last month by an advocacy organization.

According to the group, Advocates for Children and Youth, affluence is typically closely linked with a strong performance on the measures of children's health, education and safety. The gap between the wealth of Maryland's residents and the state's rankings in such areas as high school dropouts, teen birthrates, teen deaths and low birth weight is the third-largest in the country.

The national rankings are part of an annual study called Kids Count, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In Maryland, the grant is administered by Advocates for Children and Youth, which this year paired the Kids Count results with census data on household income and came up with what it says is a disturbing contradiction.

"It's mediocrity overall, not even taking into account our wealth," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of the group. "But when you later on realize that because of our wealth, we should be near the top, that's when you go from mediocrity to a real tragedy."

Joseph said although Maryland showed improvement in six of Kids Count's 10 major categories, those were mostly modest improvements that followed national trends.

Among the Kids Count findings: Eleven percent of Maryland children live in poverty and 28 percent live in homes where no parent has full-time, year-round employment. Thirty-two percent of children live in single-parent homes.

The study found that an above-average number of babies are born at low weight in Maryland, placing the state 43rd in the nation on that standard of infant health. There are 8.4 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births in Maryland, a figure that grew 11 percent between 2000 and 2004.

Kids Count combines results from 10 leading indicators of child well-being to give each state an overall ranking. Since 2001, Maryland's ranking has slipped from 19 to 24. Virginia is ranked 14th.

In addition to the research funded by the Kids Count study, Joseph said his group examined Maryland's performance in several other areas and found upsetting results there, too.

For instance, 70 percent of children enrolled in low-income health insurance programs go without dental care in any given year. That statistic will probably be highlighted this year, following the death of a 12-year-old Prince George's County boy from a brain infection that began as an untreated tooth abscess.

The group also found that at any given time during 2004, about 12,500 Maryland children were in foster care, meaning one in nine had no permanent home.

Of children in foster care, 27 percent live in group homes rather than with families. Joseph said national experts say that figure should be no higher than 5 percent and should send up alarms in states where the number is higher than 10.

"It's a pretty gloomy message," he said.

At an event to call attention to the statistics last week, the group's leaders were joined by Brenda Donald, state secretary of human resources, and Donald W. DeVore, secretary of the Juvenile Services Department.

"It doesn't do anyone any good to hide and pretend there is no problem," said DeVore, whose department has launched new efforts to recruit and retain new foster parents and bring down the number of children in group homes. "Maryland should certainly step up."

Joseph said Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed several initiatives that could improve some of the most striking figures, including Donald's efforts to improve foster care. He also praised a plan to provide bonuses for principals who agree to work in hard-to-staff schools, new efforts to boost the number of parents who take in foster children and a campaign to find more dentists willing to offer care to low-income children.

"For us, the bright spot is the opportunity that's created here for the governor and his cabinet to make a big difference," Joseph said. "It's like things are so bad that if they make an effort, things are going to get better. . . . They're saying they want to do the very things that national experts would say they should do."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company