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Vulnerable youth need intervention MARK GUYDISH OPINION

I spent the better part of Thursday afternoon getting slowly yet progressively more depressed.

Part of the reason was simple timing. The Pennsylvania Partnership for Children had released its annual “School Readiness” report at 1 p.m., dumping a boatload of data on the Web with half the day already gone.

Note to partnership: Put the thing out first thing in the morning so media types have some time to crunch the numbers.

Another reason for my glooming mood was the Partnership’s decision to post the stuff in “pdf” format. For the uninitiated, that’s the Internet equivalent of giving you tables full of data on printed sheets. It’s common practice because everyone either already has software that can open the files or they can download it for free.

But for statistics geeks, it’s just a wall of figures you need to break down and put into spreadsheets before you can analyze it.

Second note to the Partnership: Start releasing the data in both pdf and Excel format.

But the real downer came after I had converted all that data to spreadsheets that enable me to sort and calculate. With rare exceptions – well, only one, really – each time I compared Luzerne County statistics to the rest of the state, I got a little more bummed.

Just to be a bit upbeat, let’s start with the good news. Child abuse for ages 0 to 4 in Luzerne County dropped from 2007 to 2008, and it dropped a lot. The number of reported abuse and neglect cases went from 140 to 99. The number of substantiated cases sunk from 40 to 25. That’s nearly a 30 percent drop in the number of reported cases, and nearly a 38 percent drop in the number of substantiated cases.

This is actually very good news as far as I’m concerned. Of all the stats the Partnership compiles, Child abuse is the most heinous, period.

Stats paint dismal portrait

But then there are all the other numbers. Among newborns, 16.5 percent were born to a mother without a high school diploma. Luzerne has the 32nd-worst rate among the state’s 67 counties, and it’s getting worse. It also doesn’t seem to jibe with graduation rates for our public high schools, which, according to the state, run between 88 and 95 percent.

I know there are numerous statistical ways to explain the discrepancy, but the gut question also is fair: If we’re graduating so many kids, where are all these non-diploma mothers coming from?

A whopping 44 percent of the county’s children live in low-income families – 6,909, to be precise – the 34th-worst rate in the state and a full 8 percentage points higher than the state average.

Which, I suppose, helps explain why more than half of our children under 5 – 53 percent, or 8,401 – receive health insurance through government subsidies (either state or federal). This number is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the state-wide rate and the 14th-worst in the state.

Nine percent of our newbies in 2006 were low birth-weight babies, the ninth-worst rate in the state. And the rate is climbing, up from 8.4 percent the previous year.

All these numbers suggest we need more early intervention services to counter so many disadvantages our most vulnerable county residents encounter. And the estimated rate of those who need such services and actually get them is fairly high, about 90 percent. But it’s been getting worse, down from 96 percent.

I don’t have the answers here.

I just know we need to start paying attention to the questions.

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