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State Gets a D on Report Card on Children

June 29, 1989|CLAIRE SPIEGEL | Times Staff Writer

A blue-ribbon panel of experts issued a novel report card Wednesday evaluating the health and welfare of California's 7.6 million children and giving the state an overall grade of D.

In assessing the quality of life for children statewide, the panel tracked 27 different statistical indicators measuring, for example, infant mortality, child immunization rates, school test scores, child abuse reports, births to teen-agers and the number of children in foster homes or jails. In most areas, California's performance has gotten worse over the last few years. And compared to other states, California ranked worse than the national average in all but four instances.

The number of children living in poverty--1.6 million--rose 47% between 1981 and 1987, the study found. Child abuse reports have jumped 135%. The percentage of juveniles locked up in California is twice as high as in the nation overall. The state's teen pregnancy rate is the second highest in the country. And nearly half of the state's toddlers are not adequately immunized against disease.

These are among the findings of Children Now, a nonprofit group that was formed last year with 28 leading advisers, including Stanford University President Donald Kennedy and former U.S. Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler.

The report prompted a strong reply from the office of Gov. George Deukmejian. In a statement released by his staff, he said: "California . . . spends more on poor children than any other state. If that deserves a D the report card deserves an F."

Picture Called Bleak

Authors of the report acknowledged that state welfare payments to poverty-level children are comparatively high, but that the overall picture of children's well-being in California is bleak.

Hufstedler, one of the graders of California's performance, said, "I'm anything but proud of the results that have been achieved in California for children.

"We cannot tolerate a situation in which we are losing so much in human lives . . . and even in cold, hard dollars," she said.

The report stressed that taxpayers will pay a high price for neglecting children. "More and more children, failed by the lack of preventive services and lack of opportunities, face a life of welfare, unproductive work and crime," it said.

"Investing in children early on is the best kind of investment we can make in California," said the group's president, James Steyer.

The report card comes at a time when the Legislature is finishing next year's budget and debating how to divide new revenues generated by Proposition 99, which boosted taxes on tobacco products, and by Proposition 98, the school funding initiative.

Wendy Lazarus, vice president of Children Now and author of the report, urged that some of the Proposition 98 funds be used to strengthen early childhood education programs and that $100 million from Proposition 99 revenue be used to fund health checkups and treatment for growing numbers of children without medical insurance.

Of the five subjects graded by the panel--education, health, safety, teen years and family life--children's safety got the worst grade, a U for unsatisfactory.

"In many respects," Hufstedler said, "it deserves an F but none of us could bring ourselves to give an F when we know there are thousands of truly dedicated parents, men and women, who . . . have devoted an enormous amount of effort to make life better for these youngsters."

Reports of child abuse and neglect have jumped 135% since 1980, culminating in 96 deaths in 1988.

The number of children in foster homes or other out-of-home settings--67,687 in all--has dramatically increased during the last four years. About 22,000 of them are under the age of 5, more than double the number in 1983.

While no statewide statistics are available on the number of babies who are born exposed to drugs, experts estimate that it ranges from 17,000 to 30,000 a year in California.

Although the report brings bad news overall, Lazarus noted several bright spots, including reduced infant mortality, better Scholastic Aptitude Test scores among college-bound students and comparatively high public assistance payments to children whose families are on welfare.

Specifics Cited

In citing the costs of neglect, the report said:

- Prenatal care for a pregnant woman costs about $1,200, compared to an average $19,000 for a baby who begins life in a hospital intensive care unit with a problem that prenatal care could have prevented in the first place. Yet 7.3% of the pregnant women in California receive late prenatal care or none at all.

- Full-day child care costs about $3,500 a year for a preschool child of a mother who needs to work. If the mother must stay home to care for the child, the welfare and medical payments for that same mother and her child amount to $8,750 a year. Yet state appropriations for state preschool programs have barely kept pace with inflation and only an estimated 25% of the children eligible for these services actually receive them.

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