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A song of facts in the key of life

The release of the 25th annual Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook marks a quarter-century of committed advocacy on behalf of the state’s children

Image courtesy fo Rhode Island Kids Count

A depiction of all the covers from 24 of the 25 years of the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. The 2019 Factbook cover will not be revealed until the actual breakfast celebration.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/8/19
Rhode Island Kids Count is celebrating the release of its 25th edition of its Factbook, a data-driven compilation of the facts around children’s health and well being in Rhode Island.
How do the evidence-based facts about children’s health in Rhode Island fit into efforts to build out the state’s innovation economy? When will the medical community embrace screening for toxic stress as part of primary care and pediatric practices? How do environmental factors from air and water pollution contribute to poor health outcomes for children and teens? Is there a better way to measure obesity in children than BMI data? When will the R.I. General Assembly recalculate its school funding formula on a more equitable basis, or will it wait until it is forced to do so as part of an ongoing lawsuit? Is there a need to pay more attention to the number of under-insured and uninsured families in Rhode Island?

Despite the growing body of evidence-based research, the diseases of despair – deaths from alcohol, suicide and drugs – remain outside the mainstream conversation around health care for young adults between the ages of 25-34. The failure to engage in conversation around the diseases of despair is reminiscent of the lyric from Tom Leher’s song, “The rocket goes up and where it comes down/It’s not my department, says Werner Von Braun.”
When it comes to health care, when it comes to birth control, when it comes to mental health, when it comes to the threats from climate change and the need to take action, when it comes to diversity, young people, as the lyric from Buffalo Springfield reminds us, “are speaking their minds, getting so much resistance from behind.”
In today’s world, it is easy to be distracted, to be divided, and to be manipulated into ridiculous arguments that sap our energy. What is needed is a renewed effort to learn to listen in 10 different ways, to engage in face-to-face conversations, and to break free of the silos and find convergence.

WARWICK – In a time when the purposeful dissembling of the truth, the distortion of the facts, and outright lies have become normalized under President Donald Trump, the release of the 25th annual Rhode Island Kids Factbook can be seen as a powerful antidote to deceit, a vaccination of facts to protect the future of our children.

For a quarter century, the release of the nearly 200-page compendium of datasets measuring children’s health and well being in Rhode Island has served as an uplifting annual rite of spring.

This year’s Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook breakfast on Monday, April 8, follows a well-known celebratory script, including a chorus of children’s voices taking center stage. [This year’s chorus features young children from the pre-K class at Heritage Park YMCA Early Learning Center/Ready to Learn Providence.]

The Factbook release celebration also serves as a pulpit for young voices to be heard; this year, the speaker will be Pedro Moya from the organization, Young Voices, focused on the need to support young people in reaching their full potential.

The breakfast celebration of the Factbook always features a call to action; this year’s keynote speaker is Mark Shriver, CEO of Save the Children Action Network.

It is also a time when elected officials form a chorus line to sing praises of the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, including the entire Rhode Island congressional delegation, the Governor, and key R.I. General Assembly leaders.

Key takeaways
The carefully orchestrated release of the Rhode Island Kids Count 2019 Factbook also means that its news will dominate the headlines for at least a day, although translating the dense material into 500-word stories on deadline seems to defy the logic and wealth of the materials, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

Because the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook measures data over time – 71 data indicators under the broader categories of family, community, economic well-being, health, safety, and education – it captures both a current snapshot as well as a longitudinal context to interpret the meaning.

The trends that appear to leap off the pages of the embargoed version of the 2019 Factbook all seem related to demographic trends: the falling birth rate for Rhode Island and its implications for the future; the quickly growing “minority” population that will soon emerge as the majority population for children in Rhode Island, particularly for children under the age of six; and the relationship of housing to health outcomes.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, which seeks to provide a context for the 25th anniversary release of the organization’s Factbook.

ConvergenceRI: When lying seems to have become the norm in our political world, what is the role of data based evidence?
BURKE BRYANT:
You know, I wouldn’t say that’s true for everybody in the political world. What I would say is now, just as it has always been the case, we need the best available data to inform beneficial public policy decisions.

I am pleased that when I [attend] hearings at the R.I. General Assembly, legislators are frequently citing Rhode Island Kids Count data; they say that they really appreciate the frequency with which we provide issue briefs, policy briefs, and of course, the annual Factbook, [because] they count on [the data].

I think it is very true that the best decisions are made with data and evidence, and that’s what we do here at Rhode Island Kids Count.

ConvergenceRI: Looking at all the pushback against vaccinations and the drop in vaccination rates, and people who doubt the effectiveness of vaccinations despite all the facts, have you encountered a similar backlash to the facts?
BURKE BRYANT:
What we try to do, we take the best research that we can find, and make sure we have the best available data for 71 different issues of concern regarding Rhode Island’s children.

What we do is to urge people to pay attention to the data. I don’t think we’ve had much pushback on the data, per se. I think immunization has been something that has had its own set of issues. We are very pleased to be able to put the immunization data in our Factbook, so that people know that Rhode Island does have a very high immunization rate, which is great.

ConvergenceRI: Next week, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will be giving a talk about her book, What the eyes don’t see, about her experiences in Flint, Mich., around lead poisoning from public water sources. Here in Rhode Island, what would you say are the things that our eyes don’t see yet?
BURKE BRYANT:
That is a great question, Richard, and a few things come to mind right away.

First, we know that there is an increasingly unmet need for mental health services. Sometimes, mental health issues are something that the eyes don’t see. Many of our children and youth have mental health issues that need treatment.

I recently was at the State House and also at a recent Children’s Cabinet meeting and was impressed by young people who were advocating for more mental health services because of the tragic loss of one of their fellow students to suicide.

The statistics in the 2019 Factbook show that, in terms of children’s mental health, [an estimated] one in five children in Rhode Island, ages 6-17, has a diagnosable mental health problem.

And, one in 10 has a significant mental health issue. Yet, when we look at statistics on what percentage are accessing mental health treatment, in Rhode Island, an estimated 36 percent of children ages 3-17 who need mental health treatment or counseling have a problem obtaining needed care.

I would say mental health is number one [as a problem in Rhode Island that our eyes don’t see].

I would say that while we are seeing a decrease in the percentage of Rhode Island children in poverty, we still have around 34,000 children living in poverty in Rhode Island. [That’s an income of $20,000 for a family of three.] The effects of poverty are sometimes things that go unseen,

Related to poverty is toxic stress. Toxic stress is very harmful. It happens when children are subjected to stressful situations for a long period of time.

We are built to be able to react and cope with periods of stress or stressful situations, but when it continues, unabated, it causes very harmful effects to a child’s development.

We know that with the number of children in out-of-home placements, those statistics are part of our DCYF indicator, not to mention children witnessing domestic violence, there are many causes of stress in children’s lives, that oftentimes may go unseen and can be very harmful over time.

That’s one of the reasons why we have indicators in our Factbook such as, “Children witnessing domestic violence,” based on police reports of children who were actually on the scene when police come to a domestic violence situation.

We’re trying with our Factbook to have these things that could be unseen be seen.

ConvergenceRI: There appears to be in increase in incidences of domestic violence. Why is that?
BURKE BRYANT:
We are reporting that there was a 2 percent increase in domestic violence incidences that resulted in arrests from 2015 up to 2016.

That’s 5,553 incidents, up to 5,673, and that children were reported present in 27 percent of those, and that is a significant percentage of children. And, we know that is probably an undercount, because sometimes children can be hiding and not very visible to police when they arrive on the scene.

There is great leadership with Tonya Harris [at the R.I. Coalition against Domestic Violence]. I think there’s a growing awareness of just how harmful and sometimes lethal that domestic violence can be. And, that is a major children’s issue, because of the ramifications of children witnessing domestic violence, and those ramifications can last a lifetime.

It’s really something that the community has raised a lot of awareness about, but we have to keep at it, so that we prevent such harm, not only to domestic partners but to children witnessing domestic violence.

ConvergenceRI: From this year’s Factbook, what do you see as the takeaways on demographics in Rhode Island for children, and what do they mean? Such as, a declining birthrate, the emergence of a minority majority, the potential for fewer students in schools in some districts, and even a declining number of folks entering the workforce?
BURKE BRYANT:
You’ve hit on so many findings that we have been tracking, and all of those, especially taken together, need to taken into account as decisions are made.

First of all, with respect to Rhode Island’s population of children, we have had a declining birth rate, and that is something we are paying attention to. There are now 206,972 children under age 18 in Rhode Island, which is 20 percent of the state’s total population.

We are, as you say, a state that has a richness in diversity, where our younger population is much more diverse than our older population is.

I think there is a graphic that really points to that in the Factbook, that shows the percentage of the over-65 population that is white, compared to younger children. [It’s on Page 15 of the Factbook.]

It shows that 55 percent of the population of kids 0-4 is identified as non-Hispanic white, compared to 89 percent of those over 65 [years of age].

So that chart really shows the shift as we are looking at the diversity of Rhode Island.

And, you are right, that just like the country as a whole, we are on a path to having children of color become the majority of children in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: You are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Kids Count Factbook, which is an amazing accomplishment. I may have asked you this last year, but I will ask it again: where do you see the new leadership of children’s advocacy emerging from in Rhode Island?
BURKE BRYANT:
Well, one of the things that is just so exciting about celebrating our 25th anniversary is that all along the way, we have had the privilege of working with a very dedicated group of advocates here in Rhode Island who have been advocating for children and families along with us. I think the future is very bright; I am so impressed with young emerging leaders that we see everywhere.

For example, Marcela Betancur, the director at the Latino Policy Institute, she just assumed that role there.

We have great relationships with people in other advocacy groups; I am just really impressed with young leaders who are going to be leading the way far into the future.

I also am impressed by the students we often see at hearings, so many people from Young Voices Rhode Island, that are advocating on policies that will affect them directly.

To see them have such leadership, at such a young age, gives me nothing but great hope for the future.

ConvergenceRI: One of the amazing pieces of evidence-based reporting that I came across was the fact that a high school health clinic in Central Falls had reduced the rate of teenage pregnancy by 55 percent in the last three years, which is a phenomenal success. Given that pregnancies for teens still in high school represent a key risk factor for healthy outcomes for children and mothers, is there an opportunity to explore how to document and replicate the success of this high school health clinic?
BURKE BRYANT:
Obviously, bringing health care to where kids are is always a key strategy. I will start by saying that one of the things helpful in this arena has been the fact that we have steadily increased health insurance coverage for children, and 98 percent of our children are covered by health insurance.

That I always see as a baseline indicator to look at. And, beyond that, how are we ensuring that children are getting access to primary care. The health clinic in Central Falls has made great strides in making sure that children can access health care.

With respect to teen pregnancy, overall, it’s been really a major success story that births to teens in the U.S. has fallen dramatically. In 2017, the birth rate for U.S. teens, which was 18.8 births per 1,000 teen girls, and for Rhode Island teens, 11.4 births for a thousand girls, were the lowest ever recorded, both for the U.S. rate and the Rhode Island rate.

ConvergenceRI: According to the director of the clinic, she attributed the success in reducing teenage births to the ability to access Title X funding and be able to provide birth control to the teens, which is sometimes a controversial subject tin Rhode Island.
Without trying to put you on the spot, how important is it to have access to the federal funds to provide birth control under Title X to reduce teenage pregnancies?
BURKE BRYANT:
I think it’s really important to get good information out to our teens, so they can make good choices and be healthy.

I would have to look into Title X a little bit more. Any resources from the feds that we can use to help improve health outcomes here in Rhode Island are certainly welcome.

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