MARQUETTE - As families struggle, children suffer.
That's the message reverberating throughout the pages of this year's Kids Count in Michigan study, which examines factors that could affect the overall well-being of children, such as economic status, access to health care and education.
Jane Zehnder Merrell, Kids Count director, said in a press conference held in Marquette this morning that the study this year focused on the difference in the lives of children from county to county, rather than of the difference among children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, which is what the study has traditionally looked at in the past.
Kids Count 2013
What was found among the data was surprising, she said.
"There's such a dramatic difference in the life experience of children growing up in the various counties in Michigan," Zehnder Merrell said.
Across the Upper Peninsula, trends are following similar to those in the rest of the state except in two key areas: the U.P. is showing higher increases in babies born with a low birth weight and the number of children in families investigated for allegations of abuse or neglect.
A panel of local experts in child welfare spoke on the data this morning.
Marquette County Probate Judge Cheryl Hill - along with fellow panel members Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Services Agency superintendent Deb Veiht, Marquette County Public Health Department health officer and director Fred Benzie and Michigan Department of Human Services representative Bobbie Jo Ferguson - all agreed the increase in low birth weight is likely tied to the increasing drug problem in the county.
"Eighty-five percent of the cases that have come into my court since I took office on Jan. 1 has some sort of substance abuse," Hill said, adding poverty is a serious issue for those looking to seek treatment, since they usually cannot afford it.
"We've got drug-addicted babies that are being born. I know right now on my caseload there are still two at the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)," Hill said. "When you're drug-addicted you're a smaller baby and you have more health issues."
Access to pre-natal care is another issue that could affect birth weight.
In the state, this is especially a problem where data shows 29.4 percent of women have access to less than adequate prenatal care. In Marquette County, that number drops slightly to 24.9 percent. In Alger County, the percentage is slightly higher than the state, at 29.7 percent.
However, children in Marquette County - as well as across the state - appear to be well-covered health-wise, with 95.8 percent and 95.6 percent covered by health insurance, respectively.
Less than adequate prenatal care can lead to other problems, such as increases in the number of low birth-weight babies born and higher infant mortality rates.
Ferguson said the reason more children are in families investigated for allegations of abuse or neglect may not be because there are more instances of abuse or neglect, but because there is better outreach.
"I don't believe that ... more children are being harmed across the state," Ferguson said. "Right now, it's just more mandatory reporters. We expanded our child protection law to increase how many mandatory reporters there are now, and I think we are getting more referrals. As Judge Hill said, I believe we have good, quality services, but yes funding, there is a delay in getting our families into those services."
All the panelists agreed more funding needs to be allocated for services related to children.
To combat issues of poverty, health and education that may act as barriers to Michigan children, Zehnder Merrell said organizations dedicated to the well-being of children should advocate for an increase in the minimum wage, a reinstatement of the earned income credit from 6 percent back to 20 percent and an increase in support for early childhood education and childcare.
To view the full report, including breakdowns for each county in Michigan, visit www.mlpp.org/kids-count/michigan-2/mi-data-book-2013.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.