Numbers paint a mixed picture on child welfare

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BENNINGTON — Data puts Vermont is in the top 10 states for child welfare — but economic indicators tell a more complex story.

Vermont ranks eighth in the nation for overall child well-being, according to data released in June from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

But the state ranks 26th in economic well-being.

Twenty-seven percent of children are living in homes where no parent has full-time, year-round employment, and 30 percent live in households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to a press release from Voices for Vermont's Children.

This places Vermont in 29th place for this "high housing cost burden," according to the release.

"Unlike other areas of the country, we have really not rebounded [from the 2008 recession]," said Sue Andrews, executive director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services. "Economics is where we're really struggling — in Vermont, but especially in the Bennington area."

In particular, the number of children in poverty in Bennington is "astounding," Andrews said.

"We have some incredible concerns," she said. "Kids are more at risk. They're experiencing more challenging circumstances than kids who live in communities with more assets."

Fifty-two percent of children in Bennington County live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, according to 2017 report from Building Bright Futures, Vermont's early childhood public-private partnership.

"The platform on which people can support their families economically has just gotten much, much shakier in Vermont," Andrews said. "I know so many families where the parents are working multiple service-level jobs that are paying minimum wage."

Bennington also has a low vacancy rate for housing. Homelessness has increased in about the last three years, said Beth Wallace, family and community partnership manager for Bennington County Head Start.

"We have a lot of families living in hotels," she said. "And not just for a couple weeks at a time."

Poverty, including corollary experiences like homelessness, is an adverse childhood experience. These experiences can have a direct impact on physical health and well-being as children get older, Wallace said.

And poverty also adversely impacts a child while they're experiencing it.

Children sometimes come to Head Start without immunizations, as it's hard to keep up with a good immunization schedule "if you're going from place to place," said Betsy Rathbun-Gunn, director of early childhood services for United Counseling Services, which includes Bennington County Head Start and Early Head Start.

"A lot of it is [also] around mental health, and around trauma," she said.

Adverse experiences in childhood correlate with effects on things like coping behaviors, graduation rates and work achievements, said Rebecca Bishop, assistant director of Bennington County Head Start and Early Head Start.

The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of health and developmental problems, including developmental delays, heart disease, diabetes, substance use disorder, and depression, according to the Building Bright Futures report.

Poverty as an adverse childhood experience can co-exist with many other factors.

"We do see a lot of kids that have experienced some trauma," Wallace said. "I don't think you can point to just one thing."

In some of the families she serves, for example, parents are battling addiction, trying to find ways to get to treatment and maintain work.

To combat childhood poverty, Bennington most needs to improve access to three things: housing, childcare and transportation, said Rathbun-Gunn.

In the area, families could spend an average of about $200 to $300 a week on full-time childcare, which severely limits their ability to save for transportation or housing, she said.

"Our infant wait list is a mile long, and has been for a year," Wallace said of Bennington County Head Start's childcare program, which operates on a sliding fee scale.

The annual Kids Count data book uses 16 indicators to rank each state across four domains — health, education, economic well-being and family and community — as an assessment of child well-being.

Vermont ranks third in the family and community domain. Only 1 percent of Vermont children — the lowest rate in the United States — live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 30 percent or more. The state also ranks fifth in the nation in education. Of high school students, 88 percent graduate on time, and 53 percent of 3 and 4-year-olds attend preschool.

Only 2 percent of the state's children live without health insurance, up 100 percent from 2017 data.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BEN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.

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