Don't let the numbers deceive you, children's advocates say.

Utah may have ranked seventh nationally for children's well-being in a survey released Tuesday, but many children in Utah continue to suffer.Even the state's best ranking - for sharing the lowest percentage of children living in poverty with New Hampshire - only looks good on paper, said Terry Haven, Utah coordinator for Kids Count, a national review conducted by the Anne E. Casey Foundation.

In many categories, Utah scored well not because it's doing so wonderfully but because other states are performing even worse, she said.

Utah and New Hampshire share the No. 1 ranking in the poverty category because only 10 percent of the states' children live in poverty. In New Hampshire, that's about 30,000 children. In Utah, it's about 70,000.

"Don't make the mistake of saying because we ranked No. 1 we don't have a problem," Haven said.

The annual Kids Count Data Book ranked Utah and other states in 10 areas involving children. New Hampshire ranked No. 1 overall and Washington, D.C., ranked last. When all the states were combined, five of the Kids Count indicators showed children's plights have worsened from 1985 to 1995 in the United States, four showed improvement and one remained the same.

Though Utah has continued to improve over the past decade, the state fell in five areas from last year: percentage of low birth-weight babies, child death rate, teen birth rate, percentage of teens who are high school dropouts and percentage of teens who neither attend school nor work.

The increasing percentage of low-birth-weight babies continues to be a trend both locally and nationally. The trend is due to better prenatal care and medicine's ability to save more babies than it once would have, said Scott Williams, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health.

Cheryl Wright, University of Utah associate professor of family and consumer studies, said the Kids Count information also points to much-needed improvements in child care in Utah, where more children younger than 6 years live in homes with working parents than the national average.

Low pay for child-care workers - $5.73 an hour - and for preschool teachers - $6.43 an hour - means there is high turnover in the profession, yet consistency is what children need most, Wright said. And it is an area the survey indicates Utah will continue to need - with 12 percent more children projected in the state by the year 2005.

"When are people going to wake up and realize this is the most important issue?" Wright said. "Why aren't people up in arms about this?"

The Annie E. Casey Foundation made child care the central focus of the report, calling for the nation to make quality child care available, especially to low-income families moving from welfare to work. Child care costs average $4,000 per child per year, the report says, and low-income children suffer the most from temporary or inadequate child-care programs.

Wright believes child care should be subsidized, much the way public education is, and she fears welfare reform hasn't taken into account new mothers. That creates a paradox, Wright says, in which the community ideal for middle-income mothers to stay at home with their children is in direct conflict with the expectations that low-income mothers go out into the work force the minute their babies are born.

Another area of concern for children's advocates is the state's 31st-place ranking for death rates in children ages 1 to 14. Haven said the state needs more injury-prevention services. New federal block grants could be allocated to local communities in the future, Williams said.

But one problem area that is more difficult to solve is teen suicide. The study ranked Utah 21st in the nation in the number of teen deaths due to accident, homicide and suicide. To try and learn better intervention methods, the state conducts "psychological autopsies" of suicide victims, Williams said. More than 100 have been conducted, in which researchers contacted families, friends, teachers and others who may be able to outline the events that led up to a suicide. The results of the study won't be released until later this year.


Additional Information

Utah's scores in national survey

First place indicates the best ranking.

- Composite: Seventh, after New Hampshire, Vermont, North Dakota, Nebraska, Maine and Wisconsin. The lowest rankings went to Mississippi, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., which finished last in eight of the 10 categories.

- Percentage of low-birth-weight babies: 15th.

- Infant mortality rate: second.

- Child death rate: 31st.

- Rate of teen deaths by accident, homicide and suicide: 21st.

- Teen birth rate: 13th.

- Juvenile violent crime arrest rate: 18th.

- Percentage of teens who are high school dropouts: 16th.

- Percentage of teens who are not in school and not working: 12th.

- Percentage of children in poverty: first.

- Percentage of families with children headed by a single parent: first.