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UTAH CHILDREN DO WELL, BUT CLOUDS FORM

Ten indicators of well-being show Utah's children are doing well compared with the rest of the nation. But the No. 6 ranking masks serious concerns about the future.

It's no time to take out party hats and horns, according to Utah Children, a child advocacy group that Monday joined the national Annie E. Casey Foundation in release of the annual "Kids Count Data Book." Since 1985, the foundation has published its state-by-state comparisons."The critical point is not the national ranking, but how we are doing in comparison with ourselves," said Cynthia Taylor, Utah Children's Kids Count coordinator. "I think, generally speaking, Utah kids are doing all right - right now. Signs for how they'll be doing in the next 10 years raise concern.

"Let's wake up. We've got a batch of little kids under 10, and the signs look to me like there's trouble brewing for (those) whose families can't give them the support they need."

More than one-third of Utah's population is under age 18, with 665,000 children in 1993. One in four live in poor or near-poor families.

Special emphasis this year was placed on the relationship of men to families. It found that almost 61,000 Utah children don't have fathers living in their homes. Those children are five times more likely to grow up poor, facing consequences that go with poverty, as well.

Slightly more Utah men age 25 to 34 - 30.5 percent - earn less than the poverty level for a family of four. Those who are young fathers cannot support their families.

Utah and Wyoming are the only states that do not have neighborhoods where half of all the families with children have no father present.

Nationally, 19 million children in America live in families without fathers. One quarter of them - 4.5 million - live in such neighborhoods where more than half the families have no fathers at home.

"From 1969 to 1993, the increase in the number of young men with low income has been accompanied by a parallel increase in the number of children living in mother-only families. . . . If we are genuine about our concern to strengthen fragile families, then this neglect of poor and absent fathers has to end," wrote foundation director Doug Nelson in the report.

Utah also has the lowest percentage of families with children headed by a single parent, at 16 percent. But the number has been rising slightly but steadily. Single-parent families are at higher risk for poverty.

The report shows Utah doing better than most of the nation in indicators like prenatal care (72.9 percent in Utah, compared to 68.3 percent nationally), children without health insurance (Utah 9.3 percent, U.S. 13 percent), percent of adults with a high school diploma in 1993 (Utah 90 percent, U.S. 80.2 percent), and the percent of children in extreme poverty, meaning less than half the federal poverty level (Utah 4.7 percent, U.S. 8.9 percent).

But doing better than the rest of the nation isn't necessarily anything to crow about, Taylor said. Fewer Utah fourth-graders scored below basic reading and math levels in 1992, but the numbers are alarming: 36 percent of Utah children can't read at a basic level; 33 percent do poorly in basic math.

The databook bases its numbers on 1992 statistics but shows a trend measured over time, Taylor said.

Utah has the lowest birthrate among unmarried teens, but that number has seen a 36 percent increase from 1985 to 1992. And Taylor and John Brockert of the Utah Bureau of Vital Statistics caution that it may be misleading because many Utah teenagers are married and have children.

Utah's violent crime arrest rate of juveniles age 10 to 17 has risen 38 percent since 1985, the report says. The statistics show a steady increase, but Dan Maldonado of the Division of Youth Corrections said Criminal and Juvenile Justice statistics show a decrease in juvenile violent crime in the past two years. The discrepancy may result from the age of the data in the Kids Count report, he said.

Some of the rankings are confusing. For instance, a higher percentage of children live in poverty (12.5 percent, compared to 12.1 percent last year), but Utah's state ranking has improved to No. 3 from No. 4 in that time.

And while Utah's violent death rate per 100,000 teens ages 15-19 jumped from 47.8 to 57.1, that number is a 13 percent improvement from 1985. Violent death includes automobile accidents, murder, suicide and injury.

On the positive side, Utah is also doing better in:

- Infant mortality, which has dropped slowly but steadily to 5.9 per 1,000 live births.

- Child death rate. Utah ranks 27th. In 1992, 152 children died.

- Teen dropout rates are falling, with 7.2 percent leaving school, compared to a peak of 10 percent in 1988.

- Fewer teens are out of school and not working, according to the report. Some of the improvement may result from a change in calculation that removed LDS missionaries from the pool.