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Study: Children live longer, but are poorer

Florida's children are more likely to survive long enough to become teenagers than they were a decade ago.

But in many ways, the quality of their lives remains as dismal as ever.

The state's infant mortality rate, for example, has improved dramatically, by 34 percent from 1985 to 1995. Likewise, children ages one through 14 are 29 percent more likely to survive now than a decade ago.

But the number of Florida's children living in poverty has worsened by 14 percent the same decade. The number of children being raised by a single parent has increased by 20 percent.

Those are some of the findings in the 1998 Kids Count Data Book, a yearly statistical examination of the nation's children by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Baltimore-based charity is a private organization established to improve the lives of disadvantaged children in the United States.

Overall, Florida's ranking in the report improved from 47th a year ago to 44th this year, the state's highest rating since 1994.

As it has every year, the District of Columbia placed last, or 51st. New Hampshire, which has never ranked lower than third, placed first in the country for the fourth consecutive year. Most of the indicators on which rankings are calculated are based upon data from 1995, the most recent year for which statistics are available from all states.

For some, Florida's improvement in the rankings was cause for optimism.

Chaplain David Gerber of All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg _ whose job is to counsel grief-stricken parents _ has seen the human costs of the state's failure to protect all its children.

"This is great news," he said of the state's greatly reduced infant and childhood death rate.

"This is a very good report card for the state," Gerber said Monday. "I'm very glad to see these numbers. But I'm very conscious of what these numbers represent on the down side."

Jack Levine, who heads the Florida Center for Children & Youth, said the state's lawmakers still have a long way to go.

"We have had two generations of ignoring the core needs of families in this state, and there's no way in just a few short years in the early 90s of progress made that we are going to completely erase that generation of neglect," Levine said.

"What we have done in this state _ for longer than most people will admit _ is we have declared ourselves as a dangerous environment to be a young parent, to be a young child, and to be a family with special needs," Levine said.

Among the most disturbing developments was Florida's explosion of crime by children.

The juvenile violent crime arrest rate increased 68 percent in the last 10 years, placing the state 49th nationwide. The rate of violent crime by children in Florida is 60 percent higher than the national average.

There's more bad news for teenagers: The number of teens who drop out of high school increased by 13 percent from 1985, placing Florida 45th nationwide. Florida is 43rd for the percent of teenagers who are not in school or working, a category in which the state's record worsened by 9 percent.

Clearly, the state's most impressive strides concerned the very young. Infant mortality has declined, as have the number of children who perish before their 15th birthday.

Many social service workers attribute the successes to the advent of two state programs that target at-risk pregnant women and new mothers: Healthy Start and Healthy Families. Healthy Start, which is available to most women in Florida, served 93,634 women and 29,329 children in 1997 _ with a state budget of $31-million.

"Our data shows that we have significantly reduced the number of women giving birth to very low birth weight babies," said Connie Smith, who heads the Healthy Start Coalition in Pinellas.