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Poverty seen as greatest threat to healthy kids

Posted: Friday, Mar 22nd, 2013

HURON — Gains outpaced the losses for South Dakota’s children in the 2012 legislative session, but too many of the state’s youngest residents still struggle in families faced daily with poverty.

Leaders of two organizations working to improve the status of South Dakota children are on a 16-city informational tour this spring.

Jennifer Kline is the new executive director of South Dakota Voices for Children, the only statewide advocacy group for children.

“Our main goal is to keep children healthy, educated and safe,” she said in a Huron presentation this week.

South Dakota has a number of child organizations, but they deal with specific missions like child abuse.

“Ours really can vary from year to year, from month to month on what it is,” Kline said.

In the past 12 months, 9 percent of all South Dakota families lived in poverty; in Beadle County, it was 7 percent.

“Growing up in poverty is the greatest threat to healthy child development,” said Carole Cochran, director of South Dakota KIDS COUNT at the University of South Dakota Beacom School of Business.

With related children under 18 years old, 15 percent of South Dakota families are living in poverty. It is 14 percent in Beadle County.

In 2011, a family of two adults and two children were considered to be living in poverty if their annual income fell below $22,811.

South Dakota again ranked first in the nation in 2011 in the percentage of children under age six with all available parents in the labor force. That figure was 77 percent compared with the U.S. level of 65 percent.

In Beadle County, 1,025 children, or 76 percent, saw all parents in the labor force between 2007 and 2011.

Cochran said that last year South Dakota ranked 17th among all of the indicators of child wellbeing.

Across South Dakota, about 39,000 children are living in poverty. That would fill all of the seats at Target Field where the Minnesota Twins play.

Programs like supplemental nutrition assistance are available and the number of people tapping into them is increasing.

“The younger you are, the more likely you are to be on (food) stamps,” Cochran said.

South Dakota Voices for Children closely monitors each legislative session, studying each of the bills. For this past session, the organization’s policy committee tracked 81 of the 500 bills that had a direct impact on kids and took positions on 22 of them.

Kline said her organization is guided by data compiled by South Dakota KIDS COUNT. It follows current events as they pertain to childhood issues like education and day care, and it relies on child advocates who share what they are seeing day to day.

“And then being the voice when nobody is,” she said.

Many issues affect kids’ lives.

Ten years ago, for example, it was alarming to learn that the juvenile justice system was out of compliance with many federal laws.

It led to a legislative task force and changes to return to compliance.

In the 2013 session, South Dakota Voices for Children zeroed in on the areas of safe teen driving and family day care.

South Dakota has the highest rate of teen deaths in the nation, many because of car crashes. A task force determined the main reasons to be distracted driving and the need for more education.

Of four bills on teen driving, only one passed. It will prohibit beginning drivers from using wireless communication devices while operating motor vehicles on public highways.

Bills losing in either the full House or a House committee after passing the Senate were those that would have revised provisions regarding instruction permits, limited the number of passengers operated by anyone with a restricted minor’s permit and established a statewide driver education program.

Meanwhile, South Dakota is the only state that allows a provider to have 12 kids in a day care facility with no registration required.

A bill that would have tightened that by requiring a license when there are at least seven unrelated kids in the facility was defeated. The state has stricter regulations for hunting lodges than it does day care facilities, Kline said.

“It’s just common sense to us to protect our kids,” she said.

Voices for Children also disagreed with a proposal regarding joint physical custody of children when their parents divorce and are no longer living together.

The organization believes the welfare of the child should be considered first before custody is granted on a 50-50 basis, not the other way around, Kline said.

Cochran said county, state and regional statistics are used to determine where limited resources should be placed. They are also important in developing public policy and pursuing grant funds.

Kline said Voices for Children is an advocacy group that also does programming throughout the year.

One area of interest is in trying to reduce the number of Native American children who are locked up, a figure higher than non-Native Americans.

It also focuses on child mental health issues. One in five infants and toddlers are affected.

“It’s advancing something nobody else is talking about,” Kline said.

South Dakotans are encouraged to contact their legislators so they know where constituents back home stand on the issues each winter.

“We need all the advocates we can get,” Kline said. “We certainly don’t want to do it alone.”

For the complete article see the 03-21-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 03-21-2013 paper.

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