Alaska slips in annual report on children's welfare

Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's ranking slipped this year in an annual report that evaluates the welfare of children in the United States.

According to the Kids Count report released Tuesday, Alaska went from 26th place last year to 33rd this year. It found that more Alaskan women are having low birthweight babies and overall, Alaska children are dying at a slightly higher rate.

The report was released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based charity that focuses on disadvantaged children and families. It compared how children fared in 1990 with how they did in 1997.

Claire Richardson, a spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles, pointed out that the years examined were before the Knowles administration's emphasis on areas such as child health care and child protection.

''We are laying the foundation,'' Richardson said. ''It is going to take time. It is not going to be immediate.''

William O'Hare, coordinator of the Kids Count project for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, agreed. ''There is no quick fix on a lot of these issues.''

Alaska slipped most in the area of low birthweight babies, those born under 5.5 pounds, with a reported 23 percent increase in the rate of such births. The state used to have the nation's best record in this area, and even after the decline ranked fifth. Fewer than six Alaska babies out of 100 are born too small.

Alaska was not alone. Every state's record in this area worsened. Al Zangri, chief of the vital statistics section in the state Department of Health and Social Services, said the reason is likely a combination of a higher rate of births to women over 40, and a higher rate of twins, triplets and other multiples. That's happening as more couples turn to fertility drugs to conceive.

O'Hare said while an increased proportion of babies are being born small, fewer are dying in their first year because of better medical care.

Particularly alarming for Alaska are the rate of child deaths, and the rate of teen deaths from accidents, homicides and suicides, said Norm Dinges, a professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research.

He said many of the children's deaths were preventable, from drownings and crashes on all-terrain vehicles or snowmachines.

Zangri said the numbers of child deaths are relatively small, and a few serious accidents can skew the data.

Richardson noted that Alaska has seen dramatic improvement in some areas not included in the rankings. Childhood immunizations are way up. Reports of child abuse that used to go uninvestigated for lack of staff now are getting attention. Some 14,000 children are enrolled in Denali KidCare, and 1,800 pregnant women have been covered through that state health insurance program, which started in March 1999.

''This is a longterm investment in children. It will take years,'' Richardson said. ''We just have to stay the course.''

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