- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Rates of homelessness, poverty and asthma among Charles County youth are on the rise, according to a needs assessment commissioned by the county’s Local Management Board.
Performed every three years as required by a state mandate, the Charles County Community Needs Assessment of Children, Youth, and Families found the county had rates of youth with problems that were either increasing, above the state average or had a racial disparity, including infant mortality, health care availability, asthma, college graduation, bullying and child poverty.
Presented the data at their Tuesday meeting, the county commissioners expressed dismay over the assessment’s findings.
The assessment incorporated local, state and federal data, surveys completed by 413 county residents encountered at social services agencies and online and feedback from youth focus groups. The Charles County Advocacy Council for Children, Youth and Families uses the data to prioritize its efforts.
Charles County public school students classified 845 of its students as homeless during the 2012-13 school year, more than a 30 percent increase from 2011-12, when 647 students were deemed homeless. The county’s poverty rate among children increased from 7.5 percent in 2007 to 10.7 percent in 2011, according to the assessment.
The county’s 2011 perinatal death rate of 13 for every 1,000 live births was third-highest in the state and carried a stark racial disparity — the rate for white infants was 6.4 for every 1,000 births, versus 18.3 for every 1,000 black babies born.
Only 75.4 percent of pregnant women in Charles County receive prenatal care during their first trimester, compared to 80.2 percent of women statewide, according to the assessment.
About 30 percent of local babies actually are born in Charles County, a reflection of the dearth of available health care providers, said Amber Starn, an epidemiologist with the Charles County Department of Health who conducted the assessment.
More than 81 percent of Charles residents reported having to leave the county for medical care, while 56 percent of all medical services received by county residents were provided elsewhere, according to a state survey cited in the assessment. Starn said help is on the way in the form of a new Nanjemoy health clinic that will accept insurance plans provided under the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care reform law.
Meanwhile, county residents visited emergency rooms due to asthma 61.6 times per 10,000 residents in 2011, slightly higher than the state rate of 59.1 visits per 10,000 residents. But the percentage of Charles County students suffering from asthma increased from 6.3 percent during 2001-02 school year to 11.8 percent in 2008-09, according to data from the Charles County Board of Education, Starn said.
More than 70 percent of residents are obese, versus 66 percent statewide, and only 26.4 percent of locals have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 36 percent of Marylanders. The second-highest need cited by survey participants was job training in areas such as interviewing skills and how to use a computer or fill out a résumé, Starn said.
Youth focus groups indicated drugs and alcohol are easily accessible at school — in a 2007 state survey, more than 69 percent of Maryland high school seniors reported having drunk alcohol in the past 30 days — and expressed indifference to the increasing prevalence of bullying in schools, stating that their bullied peers needed to learn to stand up for themselves.
“Those kids didn’t seem to have much sympathy for the individuals it was happening to,” Starn said.
Survey participants also were asked to identify which of roughly 25 community services they wished to see most in the county. A standalone community youth center was by far the most popular choice, Starn said.
The youth groups also expressed desire for more internship programs or clubs at county schools besides North Point High School, Starn said.
Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) called the results “troubling” and contrary to the county’s standing as one of the wealthiest in the nation.
“We’re one of the most affluent counties in the country according to various sources, and yet you see obesity and overweight statistics that are very high and aren’t typical in affluent communities,” Robinson said.
“They were stunning to me, as well,” Starn said.
Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) called the data concerning infant mortality and child poverty “chilling.”
“I really didn’t anticipate seeing numbers like that, and it makes it abundantly clear to me … this will certainly require more direct attention from the commissioners,” he added.
Starn said the local health department recently received a state grant to address minority infant mortality, a recognition of the county’s high racial disparity in that category.
“You can’t help but be taken aback by these statistics,” Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D) said. She asked Starn when data beyond 2011 might be available.
Even if 2012 numbers recently were made available, Starn said she hasn’t been able to access census data due to the federal government shutdown.
“I find it very disturbing,” Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) said of the assessment’s findings. “It seems like we should change our goals and objectives to fix this. We’re building parks and doing this. It seems like we got more of a problem right here.”
Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) noted that the board’s official goals and objectives increased funding and support for youth internships and employment and an expansion of summer youth services and recreational programs.
Starn said the apparent clash between the county’s median incomes and poverty rates partially is explained by a high cost of living that makes it tough on lower-income families.
“The past couple years with the economy, many families have found they’ve been living beyond their means,” Department of Community Services Director Eileen Minnick said.
Kelly said a minimum wage increase could help families who are struggling financially and suggested bringing the issue up next week when the board makes its annual legislative proposals to the county’s Annapolis delegation.
“This is shocking information, and it really sort of paints the picture of the haves and have nots, regardless of how that came to be, the economy or whatever,” Kelly said. “You mention that we have a lot of citizens that have lower-paying jobs. ... You can’t live on a fast food or a retail salary these days. It’s impossible in this county, and that’s very discouraging that people who may be hardworking people working every day just can’t make a living wage.”