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Study: children faring a bit better

By MELANIE AVE
Published June 28, 2006


The plight of Florida's children improved slightly in the last year, but the state continues to lag behind most others in how well it cares for its youngest residents, according to a national study released Tuesday.

Florida ranks 33rd out of 50 states in the annual Kids Count study that measures how well children are faring, based on numerous factors such as education, family income and death rates.

The state moved up from last year's ranking of 35th in the study, considered among many child advocates to be the premiere state-by-state review of children's well-being.

The improvement was marginal, but it is significantly better than 15 years ago, when Florida ranked closer to the bottom at 45th.

Still, of the study's 10 main indicators, Florida fell in the bottom half of all states for all but three. It improved on six measures, worsened on three and saw no change on one: children living in single-parent families.

The state's children were less likely than kids in other states to die young or live with unemployed parents.

But they were more likely to be born tiny or to drop out of school.

Overall, New Hampshire led the nation, while Mississippi came in last. Florida has jumped back and forth between 35th and 33rd in the last five years of the study by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore.

The lack of significant improvement in recent years worried many child workers around the state.

"We're one of the wealthiest states in per capita income, but we're one of the poorest on child welfare," said Dr. Peter Gorski, director of program impact for the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. "There's no excuse for that."

Florida's per capita income is about $33,200.

The state's wealth should lead to a higher ranking and more of an emphasis on improving the lives of the young, said the Tallahassee-based Children's Campaign.

After the study became available Tuesday, the organization issued a press release chiding the state for failing to use its growing resources to improve children's lives.

The organization's leaders said the only real improvement made since 2000 is in the teen birth rate, which decreased from eight births for every thousand.

Statewide, the number of low-birth-weight babies worsened, as did the teen death rate and the number of teens who are not working or in school.

Of all categories, Florida's worst ranking among the states was in the number of children living in single-parent families. It ranked 43rd, with 36 percent of children residing with only one parent.

"Even though our ranking has improved, our numbers have remained relatively stagnant," said Amanda Ostrander, coordinator of communications and policy for the Children's Campaign, a nonprofit statewide child advocacy group. "We're still not making children a priority."

But longtime Tallahassee child advocate Jack Levine said Florida, while still near the bottom, has made great strides in the last 15 years.

The state has funneled money to infant health and childhood abuse and neglect prevention programs, which have improved the outlook for children across the state.

"There is no state in the nation that has come further and faster in its relative ranking than Florida," he said.

The state rankings are interesting, but the focus should be on analyzing the details of the study and using them to improve the lives of children, said Susan Weitzel, director of the Kids Count Florida and the Center for the Study of Children's Futures at the University of South Florida.

"We need to focus on our children," Weitzel said, "and how they're being cared for under the system we have provided in our state and across the United States on a daily basis."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.