Lots of Children Left Behind 

State youth study ranks Shelby County near bottom.

Shelby County continues to struggle in areas affecting children's well-being, according to a statewide report. In a follow-up to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2004 KIDS COUNT report released last month, Tennessee released its "State of the Child in Tennessee" report, ranking its 95 counties in 33 categories.

Shelby County was at or near the bottom in almost every category.

Tennessee ranked 43rd in the national study, which included statistics on health, education, child welfare, economics, and demographics.

The state report's categories are divided into primary indicators, such as infant mortality and school suspensions, and secondary indicators, including teen pregnancy and school expulsions. Data included in the report compare statistics from 1999 to 2002.

"Children need a good foundation for success in school and in life," said executive director for the Commission on Children and Youth Linda O'Neal. "Adequate prenatal care and quality early-childhood education are two essential elements in providing all children with the opportunity to achieve their dreams, but less than half the children who need quality early-childhood education programs are receiving them."

Shelby County, Tennessee's most populous county, leads the state in child deaths and Department of Human Services reports for the most Families First [welfare] recipients and food stamp assistance. Sixteen percent of Shelby County's population lives below the national poverty level.

"Size is certainly one of the things that has an impact on [Shelby's rankings]," said O'Neal. "It also ranks high in a number of categories because it has a high concentration of low-income families, and that contributes to other areas like low-birthweight babies, infant mortality, and school dropouts."

Almost 47 percent of Shelby County school-age children receive free or reduced-price school lunches, 48 percent are on TennCare, and 24 percent receive Women, Infants and Children benefits.

The report shows on average nearly 6 percent of children were referred to Juvenile Court during the three-year period, most of those minority youth. The legislature's Select Committee on Children and Youth is joining the commission's Disproportionate Minority Contact Task Force to examine this trend. The report also says more than 130,000 Tennesseans receive Families First assistance,

The report was produced by the Commission on Children and Youth through a $75,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. n

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