Kids Count in the U.P.

Education professionals form a panel Friday at the 2017 Kids Count in the U.P. event at the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency. From left are: Melissa Copenhaver, Northern Michigan University School of Nursing faculty member; Bobbi Jo Ferguson, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for Marquette, Alger and Schoolcraft counties; Cynthia Gill Pushman, acting director of Business Service Center One, MDHHA; Corey Holcomb, director of early childhood education, Community Action Alger Marquette; and Joe Lubig, associate dean and department head, NMU School of Education, Leadership and Public Service. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Kids Count data for the Upper Peninsula involves a variety of factors like education, family and community, economic security and health, all of which were addressed at a Friday forum at the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency.

Kids Count is a national state-to-state effort that tracks the status of children in the United States. The Michigan League for Public Policy, based in Lansing, administers the state’s Kids Count data.

Kids Count data has a purpose.

“Our ultimate goal is to improve the lives and kids and their families,” Kids Count in MIchigan Project Director Alicia Guevara Warren said.

Nationally, Michigan ranks 31st overall, 14th for health, 28th for economic well-being and 29th for family and community, she said.

There was some particularly bad news, however, with the state ranking 40th in one category.

“We fell to the bottom 10 when it comes to education, outcomes for our kids, which is really concerning for us,” Warren said.

The last full year of the Great Recession was in 2008, so the focus was comparing that with the more recent state of poverty in Michigan, she said.

What they found were more kids living in poverty.

“We have a higher rate of concentrated poverty as well, which means 30 percent of kids in one census track living in poverty,” Warren said. “We find that a lot of parents are still lacking the ability to find what we call secure employment. That job that’s Monday through Friday or 40 hours a week — that’s stable, that’s not seasonal — that continues to be a problem for a lot of our parents.”

She mentioned a few positive trends throughout the state, such as an increase in on-time high school graduates rates and a decline in the teen birth rate.

For the U.P., child poverty has remained fairly high from 2008-15, rising from 19.6 percent to 22 percent, she said.

“Since 2009, it’s stayed over 20 percent, so that’s about one in five kids, or we’re getting close to one in four kids here, who lives in poverty in the U.P.,” Warren said.

The U.P. also is losing ground in preschool enrollment for 3- and 4-year-olds, she said.

“We can see that we’ve got a lot of work to do in how we are reaching 3- and 4-year-olds and trying to help them get into some sort of preschool,” Warren said.

The U.P. performs better on average than the state in categories like low-birthweight babies and repeat teen births, although there are some negative trends involving the U.P. and many rural areas.

“We see a higher number of moms who are smoking during their pregnancy,” Warren said. “In Michigan, the rate is just under 20 percent, but here in the U.P. it averages out to 30 percent.”

State Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet) acknowledged smoking is a big issue, and health should be a local component of Gov. Rick Snyder’s recently proposed budget.

“This is a major academic problem for our youth and our health, and we have to address it,” Dianda said. “And that stuff starts locally. That’s why I’m a big fan of taking a look at this budget and make sure the money comes back to the locals, to have a health department where we can run the programs.”

Warren told audience members they can use Kids Count data in being child advocates by:

≤ meeting with legislators;

≤ having timely information;

≤ recognizing their specialties;

≤ giving public testimony; and

≤ contacting the governor.

Being proactive can help.

“The first time that your legislator is hearing from you probably shouldn’t be when you’re asking for something,” Warren said.

A stable revenue source, early child care and education and sufficient resources for schools with high needs youths are priorities in children’s well-being, she said.

“The best way to help kids is to help their families and caregivers because they don’t operate independently from one another,” Warren said.

Melissa Copenhaver, a faculty member of the Northern Michigan University School of Nursing and an infant mental health specialist, talked about ACEs — adverse childhood experiences — that include factors like abuse and neglect.

The more ACES a child has, the more likely he or she is to develop things like chronic obstructive pulmonary heart disease, depression and hepatitis, and is more likely to commit suicide, she said.

Also, ACES change children’s bodies and affect their developing brains, which in turn hurt their long-term health.

Even a fetus’s DNA can be changed.

“It’s a huge impact in generations,” Copenhaver said.

Of course, societal factors weigh in as well.

Corey Holcomb, director of early childhood education for Community Action Alger Marquette, said a family finding itself homeless has a challenge.

“We don’t currently have a homeless shelter that will serve parents and children together, so they are forced to couch-surf,” Holcomb said.

That can be unstable for the family.

“If they do have the means to get on a list for subsidized housing, there’s wait lists for that,” Holcomb said. “They’re not immediately available for a family.”

Following the panel presentations and legislators’ remarks, the audience made a list of the next steps to take, which included getting pertinent information to parents and providers, urging the state to reach out to people eligible for help and using current funds differently.

The event was sponsored by the Upper Peninsula Children’s Coalition, the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development and MARESA.

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Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.