SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — Fewer children in Shiawassee County are living in poverty and more students are graduating on time — two bright spots in the 2019 Kids Count Data Book, released Monday by the Michigan League For Public Policy.
Shiawassee County county ranked 32th among the state’s 83 counties in overall child well-being, slipping two spots from last year’s 28 rank. That’s higher than the overall rank for nearby Genesee County (66), but lower than Clinton (3) and Livingston (1) counties.
Regarding the category of children’s health, “Overall, we’re seeing some positive trends in data. For example, we’ve improved in the area of providing adequate prenatal care,” said Larry Johnson, director of the Shiawassee County Health Department.
“One area we have to continue pushing on is obesity, which negatively affects your health for chronic illnesses, heart disease and cancer,” he said.
The annual Kids Count report measures the economic security, health and safety, family and community, and education of Michigan children from birth to 17. In Shiawassee County, the population of children declined by 6.4 percent in 2012 to 2016, from 15,865 to 14,845.
On the economic front, local children from birth to 17 appear to be faring better than in previous years. The number living in poverty in Shiawassee County dropped from 3,464 (22.3 percent of all children) in 2012 to 2,345 (16.5 percent) in 2017 — a 26 percent decrease.
Similarly, children from birth to 5 in the state Food Assistance Program declined from 1,710 in 2012 to 1,068 in 2017, a 33.8 percent decrease. In keeping with the trend, the number of students receiving free/reduced-price lunches fell from 5,898 in 2011-12 to 5,291 in 2017-18.
“Overall, the report shows an improvement. We’re still not doing well among other counties in the state but we are heading in the right direction,” said Marlene Webster, the president/CEO of the poverty-fighting nonprofit Shiawassee Hope and coordinator of the Alliance For a Drug-Free Shiawassee.
She attributes some of the improvement to a rebounding local economy with low unemployment, and some to the many local organizations that assist children and families in poverty. For example, the Shiawassee Family YMCA is focused on providing under-resourced children with recreational programs.
“We’ve done a good job collaborating on homelessness and there are more resources and support for families, with Shiawassee Hope just being one of them,” Webster said.
Webster noted she is troubled by the number of children in families being investigated for abuse/neglect. Investigations have increased from 2,191 in 2012 to 2,230 in 2017. At the same time, the number of confirmed victims of child abuse/neglect has decreased by 21.8 percent, from 503 in 2012 to 356 in 2017.
Interpreting these numbers is difficult, Child Advocacy Center Executive Director Ellen Lynch said. Have the number of investigations increased due to more reporting or more abuse? Is the current number of confirmed victims lower only because of a large number of unresolved abuse/neglect cases?
“We can’t identify whether there’s a larger amount or better reporting,” Lynch said. “What we have found in our data is that we have an increased number of interviews at our center (90 percent of those cases involve sexual abuse). It’s risen dramatically over the last three years — by 32 percent in our county.”
Shiawassee County received its highest category ranking, 11 out of 83 counties, for the low number of local women who don’t receive adequate prenatal care. The number decreased from 175 in 2010-12 to 167 in 2014-16, a 4.4 percent decrease.
“We have improved in that area, and some of it is because of our Maternal Infant Health Program,” Johnson said.
The program, administered by the county health department, is for all pregnant women and moms with children up to 1 year old. A nurse and social worker visit homes to work with the parents, making sure expectant mothers take care of themselves and, after the birth, their babies.
About 97.1 percent of children in Shiawassee County have health insurance, compared to 96.9 percent statewide. The rate of immunization of toddlers, ages 19 to 35 months, is 78.7 percent, higher than the state rate of 75 percent.
“We’re ahead of the state average, and that’s a positive,” Johnson said. “Immunization is big push we have at the health department.”
Challenges include low birthweight babies. The number in Shiawassee County in 2010-12 was 51, 8 percent less than the 55 low birthweight babies in 2014-16.
“Low birthweight here is tracking worse than the state,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to be to moms and make sure they making good nutritional decisions. We’re going to keep pushing and putting resources into that.”
On the education front, more Shiawassee County students are graduating on time. In 2008-12, 225 students (20 percent of the student population) did not graduate on time. That number decreased by nearly 30 percent to 128 in 2017.
“A lot of that has to do with programs we have in place — early college, dual enrollment and CTE. Those really helped,” said David Schulte, superintendent of the Shiawassee Regional Education Service District. “Our school districts are working hard to make sure students’ needs are being met and they’re staying on track to graduate on time.”
Schulte, like Webster, expressed concern about the increasing number of child abuse/neglect investigations.
“It’s very concerning to us,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of stress coming from the families — the worst in my career. Abuse and neglect have lifelong impacts. For some students, it happened years ago but they still haven’t been able to process that.”
Schulte said the SRESD has received a grant to help address those impacts. Until now, “we have not had structures in place for that, but there is a recognition for the need to address mental health issues.”
Shiawassee County students not ready for college numbered 693 (75.4 percent) in 2018, an increase from 627 in 2016 (72.3 percent). That’s higher than the statewide rate of 65.4 percent. Shiawassee County received its lowest ranking — 73 out of 83 counties — on readiness for college.
Locally, 53.3 percent of third-graders weren’t proficient in English in 2017-18, compared to 55.6 percent statewide. In math, 78.8 percent of local eighth-graders weren’t proficient in math in 2017-18, a higher number than the 67.3 percent across Michigan.
“I think the quality of education in Shiawassee County is improving on a daily basis,” Schulte said. “The staff is working hard to educate our children with the resources that are available.”
Michigan as a whole is seeing an “alarming increase in child abuse and neglect,” with confirmed cases up 29.5 percent since 2012, according press release from the Michigan League For Public Policy. Also, despite a 20.6 percent drop in the child poverty rate, almost a half a million children, roughly one in five, are still living in poverty.
“The Kids Count book shows that right now, too many Michigan kids and families aren’t getting the support they need,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a written statement. “That’s why my budget makes the biggest investment in our public schools in a generation of kids and invests in two-generation policies that make a meaningful difference in early childhood education, close the gap between wealthy and poor schools, and create Michigan Reconnect scholarships to provide college and career training opportunities.
“Also, strong social policies like Double Up Food Bucks to increase access to healthy foods, reliable transportation, safe schools and neighborhoods, and access to clean water will build strong communities and healthy families.”