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Orange County

Prospects for O.C.'s Youth on the Rise

Statistics on gang violence, teen pregnancy and abuse improve. But indications of increased child poverty still worry one county official.

September 24, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The outlook for children in Orange County appears brighter than it did a decade ago, with sharp reductions in gang violence, teen pregnancy, child abuse and suicide, according to a government report released Tuesday.

But the level of poverty among the 872,000 residents ages 19 and under in Orange County concerns Michael Riley, director of the county's Children and Family Services Department.

The county, perceived as one of the nation's wealthiest, provides government assistance to one-quarter of its school-age children, according to the report. In the last eight years, the number of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches at Orange County schools increased 37% to nearly 200,000, the report says.

"People think of Orange County as 'The O.C.,' " said Riley, referring to the television series set in upscale Newport Beach. "The reality is, Orange County is a large urban area. It's the fifth-largest county in the United States, and we have all the issues any large urban area has to deal with."

The report, "Conditions of Children in Orange County," was prepared by the Children's Services Coordination Committee, a 17-member advisory body established in 1982 by the Board of Supervisors.

Raising children in Orange County is increasingly difficult for the county's lower-income residents because of the high cost of living here, Riley said. Orange County has some of the nation's most expensive real estate; the median price of a single-family home in the county reached $496,370 in July, according to the California Assn. of Realtors.

The costs of child care in the county are also rising, according to the county report. The average weekly cost of licensed care for infants increased 18% in four years to $149 per week, or $7,748 per infant per year, the report says.

Riley said the county needs to better educate lower-income residents on the availability of child care, food and housing assistance.

"Kids who live in poverty are prone to be abused or neglected," Riley said. "We have to develop more services in Orange County to help those children, to develop a bridge so they can go from high need to self-sufficient. One of the things we can do is get the word out, 'If you need assistance, it is there.' "

The sweeping report touched on topics ranging from sexually transmitted disease among teens and preteens (up 17% from 1992 to 2002) to the results of educational test scores (they increased in 26 of 27 school districts from 1999 to 2002). The scores rose even though Orange County spends less money per student, $6,556 in 2001-02, than the state average of $7,055 and the national average of $7,548, according to the report.

Reports of child abuse in Orange County dropped from 42,342 in the 1994-95 fiscal year to 25,067 in 2001-02, the report says. The pregnancy rate among Orange County's youth is declining. The county averaged 39 pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15-19 in 2001, a 37% drop from 1992. Suicides among the county's youth dropped from 12 in 1992 to 10 in 2001, the report said.

It also notes a decrease in violent crime and felony arrests among the county's youth during the decade from 1992 to 2001. During that time, homicides among youths 19 and under decreased from 45 in 1992 to 16 in 2001 -- a 64% drop. And the number of gang members under age 18 in Orange County decreased 80% between 1995 to 2002, according to the report.

Thomas G. Wright, the county's chief deputy probation officer, credited countywide programs targeting gang activity, as well as the impact made by the county's four youth and family resource centers, for the improved statistics. The centers offer resources to families of gang members and other high-risk groups, including health care, welfare, therapy and job training.

"You take the whole family and say, 'Junior is a symptom. What are the problems?' " Wright said. "If Mom's unemployed, we send her in for career counseling.

"We target them when we first see them, and it's starting to make a difference."

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