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County's report card on kids is mixed

April 11, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Washington County has one of the worst child abuse and neglect rates in the state, according to an annual profile of children in Maryland.

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The county is the most successful at getting parents to pay child support, but it has one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty, the survey shows.

The 1999 Maryland Kids Count report uses data compiled from various agencies to indicate the well-being of children in 23 counties and Baltimore City.

It ranks each jurisdiction on the safety, health, and economic status of its kids. It also ranks each on its preparation of children for adulthood.

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Overall, Washington County ranks seventh. On specific items, the report card is good and bad. The county ranks second in safety, 10th in health, 11th in economic well-being and 16th in preparing for adulthood.

The county ranks 22nd for child abuse and neglect, better only than Baltimore City and Allegany County. The report shows the number of documented cases rose from 190 in 1990 to 308 in 1998. The ranking is based on the rate of cases per 1,000 children.

The Washington County Department of Social Services is investigating more cases, according to Carol Springer, assistant director for services.

In 1998, there were 1,398 cases and the department found credible, unrefuted evidence that abuse occurred in 380 of those, according to Springer.

She attributed the rise to a greater awareness of the problem. "As a community, we are getting more savvy in identifying children who are at risk," she said.

Population growth is also responsible, she said. When metropolitan area residents move to the county, they often lose the support of friends and family. As a result, their stress levels are higher.

Springer said drug use also contributes to child abuse. "The drugs in our community are affecting the ability of people to safely parent their kids," she said.

The county ranks first for its child support payment rate, something that has historically been high. "It's an issue that's close to people's hearts," said Christine Hart, assistant director of child support enforcement for DSS.

She said cooperative courts, diligent deputies and innovative ideas have helped the local social services department collect. The courts help by offering delayed sentencing and the police serve summonses swiftly, Hart said.

The department schedules conciliation conferences that help inform parents about their duties. When the newspaper prints photographs of "the 10 most wanted," the department gets a good response, according to Hart.

"The minute they think they've spotted somebody, they give us a call," she said.

The county has a low percentage of babies born weighing less than 5.5 pounds, giving it the fourth ranking, according to the survey. The percentage of pregnant mothers who get prenatal care in the first trimester is ranked 15th.

The Washington County Health Department is trying to educate mothers about prenatal care, said Dr. Robert Parker, health officer. "A lot may not understand the need to get in early," he said.

There has been a shortage of obstetrical care providers, he said, but more are moving in. Education and better, more timely access will improve the situation, Dr. Parker said.

A small minority population contributes to the county's ranking for low birth weight infants, he said. Black babies historically have lower weights because their mothers often don't get prenatal care, according to Dr. Parker.

The county also ranks first for violence-related school suspensions, something that makes Joe Millward proud. "This is a safe school system," said the Washington County Board of Education guidance supervisor.

The number of violence-related suspensions has increased from 326 in 1993 to 550 last year. "I think there is some more violence but there is much higher sensitivity as to how it's reported," he said.

There is no state code dictating what acts should result in suspension, so it is generally up to each administrator. Washington County principals often choose alternatives such as Saturday school or an after-school program, according to Millward.

"Suspension is kind like the last resort for us," Millward said.

The Kids Count Fact Book is compiled by several agencies led by Advocates for Children and Youth Inc. For more information, call (410) 547-9200 or visit its web site at: www.acy.org.

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