For the first time in 10 years, child abuse and neglect rates went down in Oregon. That's one of the highlights in Children First for Oregon's annual report card for child wellbeing. Overall, however, the state earned a 'D' grade, the same as last year.
"For the most part very few indicators changed," said Cathy Kaufman, director of policy and communications for Children First. "The biggest improvement was the reduction in child abuse and neglect. We'd like to think this isn't just a blip but a trend based on improvements we've made to the child welfare system."
The only failing grade on the state's report card is in the health category. More than 100,000 Oregon children have no health insurance.
"Fewer and fewer employers are offering health benefits because they can't afford them," Kaufman said. "So this is no longer a problem that affects only low-income people; more and more middle-class families are affected."
To assign the state's grade, the report card looks at about 24 different statistics that measure: children's math and reading test scores, access to child care and health care, child poverty rates, teen suicide and child abuse.
Mark McKechnie, executive director of the Juvenile Rights Project, a nonprofit that advocates for children in foster care said strong economic growth was a key factor in reducing abuse rates.
"If you look at the state's Status Of Children Report for 2007, it lists stress factors for families where child abuse and neglect occurs," McKechnie told The Skanner. "It lists factors such as the head of household being unemployed, poverty and other stress factors that are linked to the economy …"
With Oregon's economy on an upswing between 2005 and 2007, families have been doing better, McKechnie said. At the same time, increased revenues to the state allowed legislators to restore some support services that previous legislative sessions had cut, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment. This year's sudden economic collapse threatens this progress, he said.
"It's very concerning that the improvement may be very short-lived," he said. "My fear is that this year we are seeing those family stress factors increasing, and compounding that problem next year will be cuts to services."
Mckechnie said if support services, such as childcare, health care and drug treatment are available to families before abuse and neglect occurs, fewer children would enter foster care. Currently many services kick in only after the children are in state custody.
Kotek Warns of Tight Budget
Prospects for improving the state's grade next year are mixed, Kaufman said. The economic troubles that are affecting the entire country, including Oregon, are hurting families — especially families with young children. Rising food and gas costs, and a shortage of affordable housing and childcare are putting pressure on already tight family budgets, she said.
"The challenge is always that when the economy gets worse and budget cuts are necessary it's human services that are hardest hit. But that's exactly when the need for those services becomes more acute."
Kaufman sees some room for optimism. Investments made this year by the legislature — $39 million to expand head start programs, for example, and $10 million for substance abuse treatment for parents whose children are in the child welfare system — are likely to pay off in the future, she said.
State Rep. Tina Kotek, D-N. Portland, said cuts will definitely be on the legislature's agenda. "I do believe it's going to be a tough budget session for all state services," she said. "It will be very difficult. There are a lot of priorities and the revenue situation won't be good."
Kotek, who worked as policy director for Children First before going to Salem, said state services for children and families are investments that pay off in the long term.
"I do think that when we are in tough budget times it makes sense to prioritize our children and our families," she said. "The big issues for kids will be health care — looking at ways to pay for improvements to mental health services to children and youth — and for our child welfare program."