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News Good and Bad on State of Territory's Children

Dec. 10, 2004 — The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands gave a mixture of good and bad news on the state of the territory's children Friday in its fifth annual USVI Kids Count report at a forum at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef Hotel on St. Thomas.
The good news, according to the report "Our Children Now! Mapping a Road to Success," is that since 1997 the territory has seen a "steady fall" in the infant mortality rate, the birth rate to teenage mothers and the percentage of children living in poverty.
The bad news — the territory has seen a "dramatic increase" in the rate of teen deaths by accident, homicide or suicide and a "steady increase" in the number of low-birth-weight babies, who are at greatest risk of health and socioeconomic failure later in life.
Kids Count is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which aims to track the status of children in the United States on both a national and state-by-state level.
Dee Baecher-Brown, CFVI president, said the data for the USVI Kids Count report is a collaboration of information collected from the University of the Virgin Islands Eastern Caribbean Center and the Education, Police, Human Services and Health Departments.
"When we've asked them for help, they've always said yes," Brown said. "It is truly a community effort that could not have been accomplished without any of you."
More Good and Bad News
Brown said this year's report shows that some of the territory's children continue to lack the care and resources they need in order to live an enriching life.
UVI's Patricia Rhymer-Todman, who helped to collect the data for the report, further explained the 2004 findings to the audience.
Todman said the rise in teen deaths actually represents just five more deaths than the previous year. However, all those cases were due to homicide, more often than not by other teens.
The report states that there has been a decline in teenage dropouts from high school between the ages of 16 to 19. In 2002, the dropout rate was 11.1 percent, which represented a 30 percent decline from 2001 when it was 15.7 percent.
"It seems to me that more of our teenagers who do drop out go into the workforce and do have jobs," Todman said, making reference to data in the report stating the rate of 16- to 19-year-old youths who are dropouts and unemployed is "fairly low at 4.7 percent in 2002."
However, their median annual salaries are $11,639 for males and $12,169 for females.
The report showed a steady decline in the number of children living in homes with both parents, while there has been an increase in children living in single female parent homes and homes with other family members, specifically, grandparents.
More children are living with their grandparents, particularly in the St. Croix District, where that number is 14.6 percent as opposed to 12.3 percent in the St. Thomas-St. John District.
"What we have is a steady disintegration of two-parent families," Todman said.
As far as median income for families, the Virgin Islands is still lagging "significantly" compared to other jurisdictions.
Todman said the cost of living in the territory is equivalent to Washington, D.C., which is the highest in the nation. However, salaries and cost of living adjustments are often times not equivalent.
For 2002, the median family income for the territory is $37,032 —$35,101 for St. Croix, $38,716 for St. Thomas-St. John — compared to $51,742 for the mainland United States. All numbers reflect a decline from the previous year.
Todman said single mothers head 58 percent of all poor families in the territory. The poverty threshold for 2002, established by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, is $18,267 for a family of four. Family poverty rates have declined significantly to 18.1 percent of all families in 2002 from 28.7 percent in 2000, the reported stated.
The report stated further that 5,119 families officially live below the poverty threshold in the Virgin Islands. Of that number 74.6 percent or 3,821 families had children under age 18 and 14 percent had children under age 5.
"In the U.S. Virgin Islands, poor families are more often black," the report stated.
Although there has been some improvement in the education status of the territory's youth, Virgin Islands' children consistently score lower than children on the mainland.
In 2002, 75 percent of V.I. fourth-grade students scored below basic achievement reading levels in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. This compares to 38 percent of fourth-graders on the mainland.
"We have seen some improvement in raising the proficiency level, but most people would agree that that is not significant," Todman said.
Although 27 percent of 8th grade students scored below basic proficiency in writing, this was an improvement over 1998 where the percentage below proficiency was 39 percent, the report stated.
The Solution
The CFVI considers education a main focal point in solving the problems of poverty facing the territory.
In hopes of quelling the ills plaguing the community, Brown announced Friday that the CFVI is launching The Family Connection, an Early Childhood Initiative dedicated to improving the quality of early care and education available to all children in the territory.
"The initiative will feature an Early Learning Center designed to prepare preschoolers for success in school, which will ultimately lead to their later success," Judith Richardson, USVI Kids Count co-director, said. The Family Connection also features an early childhood professional development center and a resource library.
Richards said it has always been her dream to see affordable childcare in the territory.
"Today, after years of believing, [my dream] is finally coming true," Richards said.
Keynote speaker Judy Langford of the Center for the Study of Social Policy also encouraged the group on the importance of early childcare.
"The investment that we make early on with children grows over time," Langford said, just as the gap between children with good experiences and children with bad experiences grows over time. Langford said "school readiness" is the key — preparing children to be successful in school.
"For children to do well, their families have to do well, too," Langford said. "The quality of the child's pre-school experience counts, but their family experience is just as important.
The organization also awarded various groups and individuals its Silverbells and Cockleshells Awards. For details, see related story.

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