Health

Tuesday, Apr 30 2013 07:58 AM

Child abuse down slightly, but poverty, health care still issue

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect have fallen but poverty still dogs nearly a third of Kern County's children, according to the 15th annual Conditions of Children Report Card.

The Kern County Network for Children issues a snapshot of child well-being each year, gauging how children are faring by such measures as infant mortality, enrollment in school and hunger, among others.

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If you suspect a child is being abused, call 631-6011.

At least as far as abuse goes, the overall climate for Kern County's children has been improving, said Tom Corson, executive director of the Kern County Network for Children.

He attributed that to early intervention in borderline cases of abuse and neglect that raise red flags but don't warrant removal of a child from the home.

Multiple agencies partner to deliver counseling, social services and even help with utility bills to relieve financial stress, which is often a trigger for child abuse.

"Not one single agency can do this important work on its own," said Dena Murphy, chief deputy director of the Kern County Department of Human Services.

Last year, Kern County's Child Protective Services Department investigated 18,329 suspected cases of abuse or neglect. Of those, 4,073 cases were substantiated, which worked out to an average of 11 a day, according to the report.

That's a 7 percent decline from the previous year, when 4,372 cases were substantiated.

The dip is good news, said Corson, but "11 a day is still too many."

Last year, five children died from abuse, nine nearly died but were saved in a hospital intensive care unit, and 18 suffered severe injuries, according to the report.

Another bright spot is education.

Public school enrollment rose to 175,835 students in the 2011-12 school year, 2,102 more than the previous year's count after three consecutive years of no growth, according to the report.

Kern's high school graduation rate rose to 76.1 percent last year from 75.3 percent in 2011, the third annual increase in a row.

Also, a majority of students are passing the high school exit exam on their first try in 10th grade.

But poverty continues to have a stranglehold on much of the county.

About one out of every three Kern County children live below the poverty line, and the number of households receiving food assistance in Kern has risen 91 percent since 2007, according to the report.

The median annual income of families with children was $42,035 in 2011, down 3 percent from $43,499 in 2010.

Kern County families earned 29 percent less than the state median and 28 percent less than the national median.

Since 2007, 27,938 more households have received food assistance in Kern County, an increase of 91 percent.

Health care also remains a serious problem.

The percentage of women who received early prenatal care in Kern County lags the state, and babies born with a low birth weight exceeded the rate for the state, according to the report.

For the fourth straight year, Kern has the highest rate of chlamydia infection in California, and females between the ages of 15 and 19 are at the highest risk, according to the report.

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