SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah grapples with a growing population that produces roughly 10,000 new students each year, advocates are calling for improvement to the way Utah children are cared for from birth through their teen years.
A report released Monday by Voices for Utah Children found dropping numbers of children who live below the poverty level from 2012 to 2013. Utah's rate of fatal child injuries and teen pregnancy continue to decline, and the percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care is on the rise.
But the state continues to struggle with its youth suicide rate, which is fifth highest in the nation. Sexually transmitted infections have also increased rapidly, according to the report.
Each metric is part of the challenge of handling a school-age population expected to reach 1 million by 2050.
"The biggest thing that I think needs to be talked about (is) we've seen a 24 percent increase in our child population" from 2000 to 2013, said Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children. "That has to be on the minds of policymakers that we have an ever-growing child population. Even if we start improving in some of these areas, the numbers are getting larger."
A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau found that Utah's growth rate over the past five years ranks fourth highest in the nation, even though growth rates here and across the country are on a steady decline.
Monday's report showed about 36 percent of Utah's population below the poverty line — just over $23,500 for a family of four — were under age 18. Almost one-third of those were under age 5.
The report also compared academic implications for low-income students, who scored almost 15 percent below average on end-of year English tests, 13 percent lower in math and 14 percent lower in science.
While poverty rates remain mostly unchanged from recent years, they continue to impact children in multiple aspects of life, Haven said.
"We know that poverty affects everything else that we look at," she said. "Until we start seeing that poverty rate decline, we're always going to have problems."
Utah has made strides in ensuring the health of its children, according to the report. Between 2000 and 2013, the child injury death rate dropped by almost 7 points to 13.5 children per 100,000 children ages 0 to 19.
The implementation of state policies, such as motorist safety laws, have contributed to smaller rates of children who die in traffic accidents, giving Utah a favorable rank as 11th best in the country, according to Jenny Johnson, unintentional injury prevention program manager for the Utah Department of Health.
"There's definitely been some really major, really crucial injury-related policies that have passed in our state, and those policies really change the environment that we live in and it becomes the norm to wear your seat belt and put your kid in a booster seat," Johnson said. "Those things make huge impacts on keeping kids safe."
From 2000 to 2013, Utah's teen pregnancy rate dropped by almost half to 11.9 per 10,000 females ages 15 to 17, the report states. That's down even further from 1992's rate of 26.8 per 10,000 girls the same age. It's a trend reflected in many states across the country, according to Laurie Baksh of the Utah Department of Health's maternal and infant health program.
"That rate has declined dramatically over the last few years, and we're seeing that with all teen pregnancy, both in Utah and nationwide," Baksh said. "We're very happy about that particular piece of data, for sure."
However, cases of chlamydia among Utah's 15- to 19-year-old females have risen by almost 250 percent since 2000, with a 2013 rate of 896 cases per 100,000 females in that age group, according to the report.
Baksh said sex education in Utah public schools has changed very little, if at all, in several years. But new funding could help provide more individualized education programs through community health organizations, she said.
"There's still sexual activity happening, but probably better contraceptive use," she said. "There are now funding streams that have come into the state that have gone to some of the local health departments and community organizations to teach more comprehensive sex education programs."
Teen suicide continues to pose a challenge for Utah. In 2013, Utah's suicide rate was 9.4 per 100,000 children ages 10 to 19, an increase of almost 2 points since 2000.
While the factors that contribute to suicide statewide are unclear, influences on youth such as peer pressure, isolation and bullying can play a role.
It's a problem families should talk about openly, Johnson said.
"Families actually have the strongest protective factor when it comes to youth suicide ideation," she said. "This is a big, scary topic. It's not easy to talk to your kids about this stuff. But parents have to. Having family meals together provides kind of that forum for those conversations to happen that maybe aren't as easy in another setting."
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