SIKESTON -- Despite a number of local resources available for pregnant teens and low-income parents, counties in Southeast Missouri continue to rank among the worst in the state when it comes to children's health, according to the latest Kids Count report.
Three of the area's counties -- Dunklin, Pemiscot and New Madrid -- were ranked overall in the bottom five counties in the state in the 2005 Kids Count report. Mississippi and Stoddard Counties were ranked in the bottom 15, while Scott County was placed in the bottom 30.
In three of those five counties, teen pregnancy and violent death rates are dropping, but the good is overshadowed by the deepening poverty level, said Beth Griffin, executive director of Citizens for Missouri's Children in St. Louis. The annual Kids Count report, which is published by Citizens for Missouri's Children, analyzes children's health and well being in Missouri's 114 counties and the city of St. Louis. It's based on 2004 data.
Platte County near Kansas City was ranked No. 1 on the list as the most kid-
friendly county in the state. There's not much variation of county rankings from year to year, Griffin pointed out. In fact, usually the city of St. Louis and a Bootheel county are switching back and forth between the 114 and 115 spots, she said.
"Poverty is the biggest factor when looking at almost any of the data," Griffin said. "It all is linked to poverty one way or another," Griffin said.
Nearly 41 percent of Missouri elementary and secondary students were enrolled in the free/reduced price school lunch program (for poor children), up from 37.9 percent in 2002.
About 52 percent of students in Scott County were eligible for free and reduced price lunch in 2004. In New Madrid County, 64 percent were eligible, 66 percent in Dunklin County and about 70 percent in both Mississippi and Pemiscot Counties.
"With the poverty here, that affects people's nutrition and sometimes their healthcare," said Kristi Crosier, a WIC nutritionist at Mississippi County Health Center in Charleston.
An increase in poverty means added stress on families, Griffin said.
"But basically it means they don't have as much as money to provide the things their children need," Griffin said. "And that's a concern when children don't get primary and preventive care because problems develop."
But Southeast Missouri isn't unique to the rest of the state when it comes to the poverty rate increase, Griffin said.
Kids Count also tracks what is happening to the state as a whole. In 2004, Missouri was one of only seven states in which poverty rates increased.
Griffin pointed out that changes in Medicaid eligibility and premium requirements enacted during the last legislative session have made access to health coverage difficult or impossible for approximately 21,000 and 68,000 adults.
The annual report also says that nearly one-fourth of Missouri's children did not receive preventive medical care in 2004, and only 56 percent received both a preventive medical care and preventive dental care visit.
The percentage of low-birth weight babies has been steadily increasing since 1980, with 12.5 percent of minority babies and seven percent of white babies born at low birth weight.
A wide range of programs -- from Parents as Teachers programs to county health centers and Delta Area Economic Opportunity Corporation -- are available in the area to assist residents with some of the area's concerns.
For example, Missouri Bootheel Healthy Start based in Sikeston works to reduce infant mortality rates and low birth weight births in Dunklin, Mississippi, Pemiscot, New Madrid and Scott counties.
"The figures are alarming, but we have and will continue to make the effort to reduce infant mortality, child abuse/neglect and low birth weight in our five-
county service area," said Leslie Ivie of Missouri Bootheel Healthy Start.
Ivie said more funding is needed in order to reach the people in the area the way the MBHS would like.
"This is an ongoing battle that will take time, funding and volunteers to correct it," Ivie said.
Tonya Carruth, executive director of New Madrid County Family Resource Center, attributes the area's poor ratings to the "nasty cycle" of living in an impoverished area.
"In New Madrid County, for example, a lot of the teen pregnancy problem is their lack of anything better to do. There's just not a whole lot for them to do here," Carruth said.
Carruth said she does think the programs and services provided by the Center and others in the area do help low-income and teen parents become better parents and prevent repeat pregnancies.
"It's hard to get out of the cycle," Carruth said. "Jobs are leaving here and they have to go out of town for school and leave the area. Many choose to stay here because they are accustomed to that."
Carruth said the Center uses Kids Count data in almost all of its grant applications.
Data is used in Jefferson City to point out the major trends and needs to show legislators what is happening in their district, Griffin said.
"That's really critical, and legislators need to know what's happening in their home counties," Griffin said. "And they can try to help them and figure out what the best solution might be."
For more information, visit www.mokids.org.