2011 Kids Count data shows child poverty, abuse in Mecosta, Osceola counties have increased in last decade
BIG RAPIDS – Child abuse and neglect in Mecosta County has more than doubled during the past decade, rising from 55 confirmed cases in 2000 to 114 in 2010.
In Osceola County the number of children 17 and younger who have been mistreated increased from 42 confirmed cases in 2000 to 62 in 2010, according to the 2011 Kids Count data that was released today by the Michigan League for Human Services. Lake County has the most drastic increase in confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect, rising from 23 cases in 2000 to 93 in 2010.
The rate of abuse or neglect in Mecosta County is 13.9 percent for 2010 – which is about even with the state average of 13.8 percent. The rate is calculated by taking a three-year sliding average of the percent of every 1,000 children. Osceola County has a lower rate of abuse or neglect, at 11.3 percent, and Lake County reported a rate of 46.3 percent.
As the number of children who are abused or neglected increases, so does the number of children living in poverty, which experts say is no coincidence.
“It’s well-documented in society that when folks are under more economic stress, that stress ends up coming out in the home. Kids become victims,” said Karen Schneider, director of general education for the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District. “We see kids coming into schools who are more stressed than in the past. There are more behavioral referrals than we’ve had. ... When I’m talking to the principals, they’re amazed at the number of referrals they get and at a younger age. ... It’s a reflection of the stress that kids are experiencing in the home.”
Abuse is defined as “harm or threatened harm to a child’s health or welfare that occurs through non-accidental physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or maltreatment by a parent, legal guardian or any other person responsible for the child,” according to the Department of Human Services. Neglect can include failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter or medical care or placing a child at an unreasonable risk.
The number of children 17 and younger living in poverty in 2009 was at 26.2 percent in Mecosta County and 28.7 percent in Osceola County, compared to the state average of 22.2 percent, according to Kids Count data. Lake County’s rate of child poverty in 2009 was much higher, at 42.5 percent. In 2005, all three counties had a lower rate of children living in poverty, at 25.6 percent, 23.6 percent and 38.5 percent, respectively.
The overall population in the three counties has decreased during that same time, meaning abuse and neglect are more concentrated within the families of Mecosta, Osceola and Lake counties.
Lew Roubal, executive director of the Department of Human Services for Mecosta and Osceola counties, agreed there is a correlation between poverty and abuse, but he said it is not the cause.
“There are a number of factors that play into abuse and neglect,” he said. “Economic deprivation certainly does play into it, but to say (poverty) is the cause of abuse and neglect is not true at all.”
A lack of family support, domestic abuse and substance abuse are other factors that can contribute to the abuse and neglect of children, he said.
Families in severe poverty may become isolated because they do not have the transportation or other means to communicate with family and friends. Isolation can make it more difficult for families to deal with stress, Roubal said, which can manifest as child abuse.
Poverty and stress at home also have a negative impact on children’s ability to perform well in school.
“The brain physiologically cannot learn if it’s flooded with stress hormones,” Schneider said. “If you have to come to school every day and you’re hungry or you have to come to school every day and you’re stressed because of what’s going on at home, how can you even begin to learn your math facts.”
Studies confirm that a family of four needs an income of at least $44,226 to cover basic needs without any assistance, according to the Michigan League of Human Services. The median income for families in Mecosta County is $37,840, while Osceola County’s is even lower at $34,823 and Lake County families have a median income of $29,373.
The number of students receiving free or reduced lunches demonstrates the magnitude of local need. Forty-six percent of students in Mecosta County and 59.2 percent of students in Osceola County received federally-funded free or reduced lunches in 2010, up from about 48 percent in both counties in 2005. The vast majority, 93.3 percent, of Lake County students received free or reduced lunches in 2010, up from 88.4 percent in 2005.
“We’re on the right track in Mecosta County in that we’ve got programs looking at these issues,” Schneider said.
Schneider and LouAnn Gregory, Great Start Collaborative coordinator, cited Angels of Action, resource hotline 2-1-1, local churches and food pantries and the Poverty Reduction Initiative as examples of the numerous local groups that assist families in need.
“All the sectors are brought together, and the community decides what it is that we can do and how we can make it happen,” Gregory said. “Everybody’s doing a little bit and making a difference. We’re not waiting for Lansing to say ‘This is what you need to do.’”
Schneider agreed that it will be up to local initiatives to improve the outlook for families and children in poverty.
“I don’t see a whole lot more help coming from the state right now,” she said. “Sometimes the programs we cut at the state level have a negative impact in terms of being able to draw matching dollars from the federal level. We hurt ourselves by not being able to draw down those extra dollars as a state. I think we probably do have to look more internally in our own communities. ... We’ve got issues, but look at what we’re doing to make things better. It’s going to take time before some of that is reflected in the numbers, but we’re on the right trail.”
To see the complete 2011 Kids Count data report, visit www.milhs.org/kids-count/mi-data-book-2011.