MONTCALM COUNTY — A 2013 Kids Count report that measures child-well being based on a variety of factors shows Montcalm County ranks toward the bottom in the state in the number of children living in families investigated for abuse and neglect.
According to the report, conducted by the Michigan League for Public Policy, more than 146 kids per 1,000 in the county live in a household that has been investigated for abuse or neglect, a 139 percent increase from 2005. The rate means Montcalm County ranks 72nd out of 83 counties in the state.
The county also saw a huge rise in the number of confirmed victims of abuse and neglect, more than 25 children per 1,000, more than four times higher than 2005. Montcalm County ranks 63rd in that category.
Ionia County ranks 65th in investigations (137 per 1,000 children) and 59th in confirmed cases (24 per 1,000 children).
While there could be several different reasons for the spike, Ionia and Montcalm Great Start Collaborative Director Cari O’Connor said there is one underlying factor that is directly related. In both Montcalm and Ionia counties, nearly one in every four children are living in poverty and more than half are eligible for free or reduced price lunches.
“The real issue we should be talking about when looking at those numbers is poverty is so high in our state and county,” O’Connor said.
In Montcalm County, the unemployment rate (11 percent) is two percentage points higher than the state rate of 9.1 percent.
“Though the recession officially ended years ago, the toll on children is still apparent with the persistently high number of children living in need. It’s especially troubling that young children are growing up in poverty because research shows a deeper lifelong impact of deprivation during early childhood,’’ Jane Zehnder
Merrell, Kids Count in Michigan director at the Michigan League for Public Policy, stated in a press release.
O’Connor said because Montcalm and Ionia have such high rates of poverty and unemployment, it means stress levels of families, especially parents, are high.
“That affects parents and the ability of them to meet the needs of their children,” she said. “Families living in poverty struggle to meet their basic needs so they can fall on hard times. And that affects their parenting.”
And in cases of abuse and neglect, if there are confirmed cases, that can mean foster care for the children. With Montcalm and Ionia ranking so poorly in confirmed cases, the number of children placed in the foster care system is rising.
“We’re very concerned about the number of children birth to 5 (years old) who are in foster care,” O’Connor said. “So we are trying to figure out how can we help those families?”
So Great Start Collaborative has launched several programs to do just that, including a Parent Coalition, which is a gathering of parents and officials to discuss issues and try to find resources to address them.
There are also free courses available for parents in some very basic care for children, from changing diapers to preparing baby food.
For more information on Great Start or to sign up for any of its classes, call (616) 225-6278.
The entire Kids Count report can be found at www.mlpp.org online.