Urban Child Insitute Data Show Good News

The Urban Child Institute this month published its seventh annual "Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County," focused on the forces, trends and factors affecting the healthy brain, social and physical development of children through age 3.

The Institute, at 600 Jefferson Ave., is a nonprofit organization consisting of a coalition of community researchers, strategists and practitioners dedicated to the well-being of young children in Memphis and Shelby County.

The report's chapters include demographics; health; family and home environment; education; community; and early brain development.

Katy Spurlock, director of Education and Dissemination at The Urban Child Institute, said the brain development section this year contains an epigenetic piece, written in lay-friendly terms. (For more about Katy, see her Memphis Standout Profile at the Memphis Daily News.)

"Scientists are showing scientifically how important a child's environment is," she said. "Genes are not a blueprint written in stone like we once thought. … The environment does modify how genes are expressed. It doesn't change the actual DNA code that you get from your parents, but which genes get expressed are all in the biochemistry that's happening in those cells, which is just fascinating."

This year's report includes a special interest section about the impact of Shelby County Books from Birth on kindergarten readiness, and a look at the effectiveness of the Nurse-Family Partnership in Memphis, a home visiting program aimed at improving the health of at-risk mothers and their children.

The report shows some encouraging statistics regarding formidable issues whose progress seems to stem from community awareness by a variety of providers.

Overall Shelby County infant mortality rates are down from 13 per 1,000 live births in 2009 to 10.3 per 1,000 births in 2010, and the infant mortality rate for African-American babies fell from 18.5 per 1,000 live births to 13.4 per 1,000 live births.

There is no improvement, however, in the percentage of pre-term births and babies with low birth weights.

"A lot of children born pre-term and low birth-weight narrowly survive," Spurlock said. "But they still have many developmental delays and other physical, emotional and mental problems that are difficult to overcome when they're born so little and so early. The good thing is we can keep them alive now."

There are programs and services available to promote the optimal development of those young children, such as those offered by the state-funded Tennessee Early Intervention System.

"But not enough people who have pre-term births seek those services," Spurlock said. "They're still under-utilized in the sense that not everyone with a pre-term child is accessing those services. … It's a great service when families access it and get their children the early intervention they need."

In other good news, the birth rate for Shelby County teenagers ages 15 through 19 dropped from 69 per 1,000 girls in 2008 to 53.5 per 1,000 girls in 2010.

For African-American teenagers, the rate of giving birth dropped to its lowest level since 2001 – from 91.5 in 1,000 in 2008 to 69.3 in 1,000 in 2010.

Shelby County mothers who receive no prenatal care dropped from 9 percent in 2007 to 6.7 percent in 2010.

And the percentage of Shelby County mothers who initiate breastfeeding continues to rise, now at 60.3 percent, up from 50.3 percent in 2006.

"The breastfeeding news is great," Spurlock said. "To me, it's been miraculous, the numbers of women who have at least tried to initiate breast-feeding when they've had babies."

In other positive news, due to increasing awareness about the critical first years of a child's life, pre-K programs have moved to the top of the agenda.

"We have enough data now from the pre-K in Memphis City Schools to know that children who are in that program a year before they start the K through 12 system do better," Spurlock said.

Although these are positive signs, Memphis and Shelby County still lag behind state and national statistics in many areas, and the Data Book shows crucial trends that remain troubling and stubborn.

Births to unmarried parents remain at more than 60 percent, with many children born to single parents who don't have high school diplomas, with an average annual income of less than $18,000.

About 30 percent of Shelby County children live in poverty, and half of those children live in extreme poverty, in families Spurlock said are "living in chaos, in terms of there not being a lot of function in the household."

"There are a whole lot of other issues going on," she said. "Those are families where the children are not getting enough nutrition, language skills and consistency. All the things that are so important to the developing brain of a young child are really missing from those families living in extreme poverty. And Memphis, of course, has so many of those families."

Family income matters because it increases a child's opportunity to grow up in high-quality learning environments that support cognitive skills such as early literacy and healthy social and emotional development.

"It's hopefully a message of hope to know what we're up against and to be willing to address those pretty severe issues that we have," Spurlock said.

The Urban Child Institute's entire 2012 Data Book can be downloaded at www.urbanchildinstitute.org.

This article was originally published online by The Daily News at: http://www.memphisdailynews.com/news/2012/aug/24/urban-childs-data-show-good-news/

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