While it’s easier to be a kid in Oakland County these days, there’s still more to be done to protect and support one of Michigan’s most vulnerable populations.
Oakland County ranked fourth in the state for child well-being in this year’s Kids Count in Michigan Data Book released by the Michigan League for Public Policy. The annual report analyzes and evaluates child well-being throughout the state based on family and community, health and safety, economic security and education. The 2019 report compares data from 2012 to 2017.
Livingston, Clinton and Ottawa counties ranked first, second and third respectively with Washtenaw County placing fifth behind Oakland County. Lake County ranked at the bottom of the list in 82nd with Luce, Alcona and Schoolcraft counties ahead of it.
Fewer children are living in poverty, more teenagers are graduating from high school on time and thousands of young children are no longer on food assistance programs according to the report.
The number of children ages 17 and under living in poverty dropped from 39,074 to 24,330 in Oakland County, a 35 percent decrease. That’s in large part because employed adults in these households are benefitting from an improving economy. Wages increased 1.5 percent each year from 2013 to 2017, according to the most recent three-year economic outlook report, and more than 42,000 new jobs are expected to be created in the county by 2020.
But even as Michigan experienced a 20 percent drop in its child poverty rate, one in five still lives with economic insecurity.
“The Kids Count data book has been working to draw attention to pervasive child poverty for years, as 1 in 5 kids is still unacceptable, and it’s even higher for kids of color,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, project director for Kids Count in Michigan. “A family’s lack of economic security affects a child’s well-being in many ways, from their living conditions and nutrition to their mental and emotional stress, and can lead to unsafe homes.”
Close to 7,000 children age 5 and under left supplemental nutrition assistance programs, or SNAP, a 38.7 percent decrease.Just over 10,560 remained in the programs in 2017 in the county, with over 179,000 state-wide. Michigan saw an overall 28.9 percent decrease.
Teenage health and education also saw dramatic improvements. Births for teens ages 15 to 19 are down 30.9 percent in Michigan and 37.4 percent in Oakland County.
More students are also graduating from high school on time. In 2012, 3,499 students were missing their expected graduation date. That’s down 35.7 percent to 2,007 in 2017. Michigan saw a 16.6 percent decrease.
Michael Yocum, assistant superintendent for educational services at Oakland Schools, says that’s likely due to several reasons: More career and technical education programs housed in the county, diverse course offerings, better student tracking for intervention, and college or career readiness introduced to younger grades.
“Districts are working very hard at making sure no student is falling through the cracks and they’re finding new ways to intervene early when they see a student is off track,” Yocum said. “They’re also working to find ways to make education at the secondary level more engaging and relevant, we’ve done a lot of work in this area.”
Kim Olzak, a counselor at Avondale High School for the past 22 years, has seen how changes are helping more students graduate on time.
“The biggest thing that’s shifted is we’re not pointing all kids to college. We’re starting to realize there’s different pathways. It’s been a hard thing to break in Oakland County, there’s so many parents who say ‘my kid has to go to college’,” she said.
By offering students more options, such as dual enrollment, early college programs, access to national certifications and job shadowing, Olzak believes more students are willing to work to finish high school on time.
“This makes a difference, for those kids who aren’t focused on four-year university, it gives them something to reach for,” she said.
Lisa Smulinski, a counselor at Pontiac High School, agreed.
“With more programs, we’re keeping them interested in school and getting that diploma. Their interest in school really affects if they’ll graduate or not, so we offer these extra academic adventures,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges to keeping students on track however is something outside of school district control — issues in the home.
The number of children being placed in out-of-home care is up 40.7 percent, while the number of children in families being investigated for abuse or neglect is up 14.5 percent. The number of confirmed victims of child abuse or neglect is up 31.4 percent, from 1,786 to 2,259. Michigan also saw increases across the board, with the number of confirmed victims rising 29.5 percent from 33,565 to 41,462.
Children and infants who experience trauma or chronic stress are four times more likely to develop mental health disorders in adulthood, according to Easterseals Michigan, a behavioral health services agency. They are also at a higher risk for health concerns such as alcoholism and chronic disease.
“More and more people in the community, I think, have become aware that if they see something, they need to say something,” Blythe Spitsbergen, executive director of the county’s leading child advocacy center CARE House Oakland County, said. “And that every allegation needs to be taken seriously.”
Spitsbergen said there’s no data to confirm or deny if instances of child abuse or neglect have gone up or down significantly, but that’ is very likely that everyone, from teachers to law enforcement to everyday citizens, are getting better are reporting.
CARE House also trains with every police jurisdiction in Oakland County on spotting and preventing child abuse and neglect.
Each year, the Michigan League for Public Policy issues a set of recommendations to accompany the data book. Some of this year’s recommendations include: Expanding access to affordable, high-quality child care through subsidies and increased provider reimbursement rates; More postsecondary training and education programs; Restoring funding for family planning and pregnancy prevention programs to previous levels and addressing disparities in the child welfare system through data collection and cultural competency training.
One of this year’s recommendations, to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years old, has already seen action in the Michigan Senate with the passage of a set of “Raise the Age” bills.
“We were thrilled to watch the Senate vote to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in Michigan from 17 to 18 years of age. For years we have worked with a strong coalition, including the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, to make this happen, and with the help of key lawmakers, we’re getting closer,” Warren said.