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Study Ranks Youths’ Welfare Above Average : Report: Group says county earns good marks for health, education of children, but sees room for improvement given income levels.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County’s children are healthier, safer and better prepared for college than their peers statewide, but the county takes worse care of its youngsters than some other jurisdictions of comparable wealth, a new study shows.

In its annual county-by-county comparison, the Oakland-based advocacy group Children Now ranks Ventura County above average in all areas surveyed to gauge the well-being of children in California.

However, Ventura County is not doing as well as it should to keep students from dropping out of high school, to curb child abuse and collect child support, or to slow the increase of teen-age mothers who have babies prematurely.

“Given its wealth, Ventura County should be doing better,” said Lois Salisbury, executive director of Children Now. “Ventura has to measure itself against comparable communities that have been more successful with the same or fewer resources.

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“For example,” she said, “look at how many children are prepared to go to college in San Francisco, which has many more low-income kids and is doing a better job.”

In San Francisco County, half the children are low-income, but 47% of students have taken a full complement of college-preparatory classes, the report said.

In Ventura County, one-third of children are low-income, but only 36% have taken the pre-college courses. The Ventura figure is above the state average of 32%, but unimpressive considering the county’s wealth, Salisbury said.

Ventura County’s student dropout rate, ranked 27th among the state’s 58 counties, also “is not one to be proud of” in light of its economic advantages, she said.

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County Supt. of Schools Charles Weis said he considered the Children Now analysis a call to arms that should prompt local school districts to provide a better safety net to catch students as they begin to drop out.

“I would say we need to redouble our efforts on dropouts,” he said. “The kids are on the dropout track from middle school on. That’s when we’ve got to reach them.”

Some local schools, especially those in the Oxnard high school district, have cut their dropout rates sharply in recent years, Weis noted. But scores show that other local high schools--including those in Ventura and Simi Valley--have made less progress.

Still, taken as a whole, Ventura County ranks well in many areas surveyed by Children Now, especially when considering the number of poor children here.

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The county has the state’s sixth-highest median family income, about $58,000 a year. But nearly 34% of local youngsters are low-income, which puts the county 22nd in that category.

Indeed, the study shows that Ventura County has been particularly effective in improving public health, ranking second in its battle against communicable diseases by fully immunizing 61% of all children by age 2. Only San Mateo County ranks higher at 67%, while Santa Barbara County had a 56% inoculation rate.

Ventura County has also showed substantial improvement in luring pregnant women to clinics for early checkups.

Only 4.2% of mothers had late or no prenatal care over a three-year period ending in 1993, compared to 5.9% statewide. And that figure dropped to only 2.5% in 1993 as the number of women with late care fell to 302 from 727 two years earlier, the sharpest reduction in any urban county in California.

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Health officials attributed the improvement partly to a countywide pregnancy task force that fanned out to reach women in the poorest areas.

But Ventura County had no success bucking state and national trends toward more teen-age pregnancy--a principal concern of the Children Now report.

“Babies born to teens are more likely to be born without the benefit of prenatal care and to spend a portion of their lives on welfare,” the report said. “A teen-age mother is less likely to finish high school and more likely to live in poverty.”

Salisbury noted that, contrary to popular belief, two-thirds of all children born to teen-age mothers have fathers who are at least 20 years old.

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Locally, the number of 15- to 19-year-olds having babies has increased from 45 births per 1,000 in 1988 to 54 per 1,000 in 1993. Those births represented just 8.8% of the total in 1988 but 10.2% in 1993, when the statewide figure was 11.7%

“It’s a significant problem,” said Dr. Gary Feldman, county public health officer. “But it’s not necessarily seen as a problem by either the mother or the father. At that point in their lives, it’s a status symbol, a movement from childhood to adulthood.”

Part of the increase is related to culture, he said, since about two-thirds of teen-age mothers are Latinas.

“We see a much higher rate in the Hispanic community,” he said. “Teen-age pregnancy may not be seen as a problem, particularly if the teen-ager is not doing well in school. It’s seen as an option.”

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Attempts to convince youngsters that pregnancy is bad for them because it creates poverty and limits options have not worked, he said. A better solution may be early counseling by other young mothers who have endured the burdens of parenthood and greater efforts by schools to prepare poor students for careers more promising than early pregnancy.

“I see teen pregnancy as a symptom rather than a disease,” Feldman said.

It is a dangerous trend, he said, since teen-agers tend to have premature children who have low birth weights, Feldman said. Early births have increased locally from 7.7% of the total in 1990 to 9.2% in 1993, a much more rapid rise than experienced statewide.

A dramatic surge of child abuse cases--another area of growing concern for years--has abated, Children Now reported. Cases of abuse and neglect rose from 51.6 per 1,000 children in 1990 to 77 per 1,000 in 1992. But in 1993, they dropped to about 71 per 1,000 and below the state average of about 74 per 1,000.

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Such cases probably increased because people are more aware of the problem and willing to accuse the abusers, officials said. But economic factors also came into play during bad times in the early 1990s, said Sandy Duncan, a program manager in the county’s Child Protection Services program.

“Unemployment creates great tension and conflict within the family,” Duncan said. “Now the economy has improved.”

Another creator of family strife is lack of child support, and Salisbury criticized Ventura County’s performance in helping parents collect from errant spouses.

The county ranked 24th in California for collections, by gaining payments in about 42% of cases under court order, compared to 37% statewide, according to the report.

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“I wouldn’t be too proud of that given the economics of your county,” Salisbury said. “These are families that can pay.”

But Stanley Trom, director of the child support division for the district attorney’s office, said the Children Now figures are misleading because they reflect only payments for one month, not the whole year. And they do not indicate whether the collection was large or small, he said.

“I was so angry with this report last year that I contacted them to say the number they were using was a very unfair measure of performance,” Trom said. “They conceded that my objections were accurate.”

A better measurement, Trom said, is the size of the average collection for each non-welfare case, a category in which his office ranks second in the state. The county collected $1,089 per case last fiscal year, he said, and was topped only by San Bernardino’s $1,906. For comparison, Santa Barbara County collected $614 per case, he said.

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Children Now spokeswoman Amy Abraham said any one figure that could be used would be somewhat misleading.

“Either way you choose,” she said, “you’re missing part of the picture.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Ventura County’s Children

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A new study has found that children in Ventura County fared better than their peers statewide in areas of health, education and welfare. This is a look at some indicators.

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Ventura California County County average rank* EDUCATION High school dropouts 3.4% 5.0% 27 Grads prepared for college 36% 32% 10 HEALTH Late or no prenatal care 4.2% 5.9% 14 Pre-term births 8.8% 9.7% 17 Infant deaths per 1,000 births 6.8 7.5 17 2-year-olds fully immunized 61% 48.4% 2 Births to 15- to 19-year-olds 10.2% 11.7% 17 FAMILY LIFE Median family income $57,900 $46,596 6 Child-care cost $375 NA 17 Unemployment (March, 1995) 6.0 7.8 9 Children in low-income families 33.9% 44.6% 22 Child support cases with payment 41.6% 37.1% 24 Foster care (per 1,000 children) 3.0 9.4 3 Child abuse (per 1,000 children) 70.8 73.7 18

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* Compares Ventura County with other counties in the state; 1=Best, 58=Worst. Note: In some categories, data for all counties was not available.

Source: Children Now 1995 report, 1993 and 1994 statistics


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