An annual, nationally respected state-by-state ranking of child welfare being released today shows Utah children are less well off than in 2007 because a greater percentage of kids are living in poverty, the teen death rate has increased and the state continues to have a high number of low-birth-weight babies.

The data book, the 19th issued by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, uses the indicators and 25 variables that take into account conditions such as whether a child lives in a rural or urban area, whether they live with their parents, and their schooling.

Despite the declines, which are counter to the way child advocates would like to see them moving, they point out that Utah is still in the top 10 — it ranks fifth in the nation, overall — and that it still maintains a better poverty rate, teen death rate and low-birth-weight baby percentages than the national average.

The foundation reports also that Utah ranks No. 1 in the country for having the lowest percentage of children in single-parent families (18 percent) and for having the lowest infant mortality rate (4.5 deaths per 1,000 births).

The data book is obviously a collection of indicators that are much more instructive to how states are doing than the national ranking, said Terry Haven, Kids Count director with the advocacy and public policy group Voices for Utah Children.

"It also provides trend data, simple demographic information and baseline statistics to help us understand what we must do to improve," Haven said.

For example, she said, the state's percent of low-birth-weight babies worsened by 3 percent between 2000 and 2005, still good enough to be ranked 10th among other states. The publication also indicates that Utah's percent of low-birth-weight babies in 2005 was 6.8 percent compared to 8.2 percent nationwide.

Utah's ranking in that category went from eighth nationwide in last year's book to 10th place in 2008. Alaska has the lowest incidence — 6.1 percent — of low birth weight.

Other notable statistics in the data book regarding Utah's children:

• 12 percent live in poverty — a 20 percent increase since 2000. Nationally, 18 percent of all children live in poverty.

• 13 percent were without health insurance compared to 11 percent nationally.

• 65 percent are in low-income families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing compared to 66 percent nationally.

• 37 percent live in working poor families (below 200 percent of the federal poverty level) compared to 40 percent nationally.

• 5 percent live in extreme poverty, which is defined as living in households with incomes that are 50 percent of the poverty level.

Along with data, the annual report also highlights a specific area impacting child well-being. This year's book focuses on the juvenile justice system, including the flaws in the system as well as promising reforms already under way.

According to the Kids Count report, the estimated daily count of detained and committed youth in custody in 2006 in Utah was 864 or 108 per 100,000 youth ages 10-15. The ratio of youth of color to white youth in custody in 2006 was three to one (the same for the nation as a whole) and 63 percent of Utah youth in custody were there for non-violent offenses compared to 65 percent nationally.

The essay in this year's book offers several findings from the foundation's research:

• Wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is expensive and nearly always results in recidivism.

• Youths are different from adults and they require a different response from the justice system than what adults receive when accused or found guilty of crimes.

• Parents and families remain crucial to the success of juvenile treatment and rehabilitation.

• Formal prosecution of routine, predictable and minor misbehavior is increasingly common and wholly counterproductive.

• Increasingly, juvenile justice systems are being used as de facto dumping grounds for youths who should be served by the mental health, special education and child welfare systems.

According to Susan Burke, assistant juvenile court administrator in Utah, the state has been engaged in many of the identified reform efforts outlined in the essay and continues to work on them.

The Kids Count Data Book with state-by-state rankings, supplemental data, and the essay, "A Road Map for Juvenile Justice Reform," can be viewed online at www.kidscount.org.


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