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V.I. Children in Crisis, Report Shows

By almost any measure, children in the U.S. Virgin Islands are worse off now than they were 10 years ago, according to “Kids Count,” an annual report on the status of children in the territory.
“V.I. Kids Count 2009” was released Monday by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, which has published the document each year. This year’s report uses data from 2007, the most recent year for which information is available.
Drawing from an array of sources, including the Eastern Caribbean Center of the University of the Virgin Islands and the V.I. departments of Health and Education, the report draws a picture of the challenges and trends facing youths in the territory.
And the picture isn’t pretty. In eight of the 12 general categories of the report, conditions are worse now than they were last year and only better in two.
Compared to 10 years ago, conditions are worse today in seven of those categories, better in three.
Asked if “the community is failing its children,” the project’s director, Judith Richardson, paused, looked down and then said in a small voice, “I don’t want to say yes, but I’m afraid the answer is yes.”
Among the report’s findings for 2007 are:
• Percentage of low birth weight babies has risen from 9.5 in the 2001 report (which used data from 1997) to 11.6 in 2007;
• Infant mortality has risen from 3.4 percent to 6.8;
• The child death rate has risen from 37.5 per 1,000 children between the ages of 1 and 14 to 50.7;
• The teen death rate has skyrocketed from 72.2 per 100,000 teens to a staggering 122.9; and
• The percentage of children in single-parent households has risen from 35.6 to 55.8 – more than half the children in the territory live with only one parent. The national average is 32 percent.

The territory improved in the following areas:
• The dropout rate fell from 15.7 in the 2001 report to 13.8 in 2006 and again to 13.1 in 2007. The national average is 7 percent;
• Median family income rose from $37.539 (2001) to $42,673; and
• Percentage of children living in poverty dropped slightly, from 36.5 to 34.1.

Richardson noted sadly that these statistics came from 2007, right before the economic downturn, so next year’s report may see those last two figures slide.
Also of concern is the increasing level of children starting kindergarten who are not prepared for school. Once they get left behind, said Ellie Hirsh of the foundation’s Family Connection program, it’s almost impossible to catch back up.
“Our children are in crisis when they start kindergarten,” she said.
Tests administered by the Department of Education to incoming kindergartners on St. Thomas showed that in the 2007 class, one in five was below expectations in gross motor skills and one in three were lacking in fine motor skills.
Dee Baecher-Brown, president of the Community Foundation, said a report is just a collection of data unless it is put to use, and the “Kids Count” report showed there was plenty to do.
“This is a wake-up call,” she said.
The foundation will be holding forums in June with members of the community, including the business community, to look for ways to reverse these trends.

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