By Tia Lecorchic, Staff Writer

The annual KIDS COUNT Report, a nationwide project conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, released their results last month. The report measures the overall well-being of children across America by analyzing current trends and a variety of data gathered from governmental, educational, and health institutions.

After evaluating 47 indicators of child, family and community well-being, the report aims to determine the quality of life of children, breaking down the results in a state-by-state and county-by-county format. The comprehensive report provides the latest numbers on birth rates, teen pregnancies, STDs among youth, enrollment rates of pre-k-aged children, graduations rates, dropout rates, unemployment rates, single-parent home rates, voter participation rates, and substantiated incidents of child abuse and neglect.

According to the KIDS COUNT Data Center, “the Foundation seeks to enrich local, state and national discussions concerning ways to secure better futures for all children — and to raise the visibility of children’s issues through a nonpartisan, evidence-based lens.

In addition to including data from the most trusted national resources, the KIDS COUNT Data Center draws from more than 50 KIDS COUNT state organizations that provide state and local data, as well publications providing insights into trends affecting child and family well-being.

Through its National KIDS COUNT Project, the Foundation develops and distributes reports on important well-being issues.”

The Morgan County Family Connection has utilized the results of the KIDS COUNT Report to craft and fine-tune five targeted strategies designed to ensure safe and healthy upbringings for the children of this county, said Velde Hardy, Family Connection coordinator. “We look at the trends happening in Morgan County to develop certain strategies and to form relationships with partners to address any areas of concern,” said Hardy.

“We use all of this information to determine how we can best help our communities form stable, self-sufficient families. We bring community partners together to develop, implement, and evaluate plans that address the serious challenges facing Georgia’s children and families.”

The five initiatives Family Connection has implemented are the Youth Development Strategy, the Drug and Alcohol Free Youth Strategy, the Children Safe and Families Strong Strategy, the Educated and Working Community Strategy, and the Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention Strategy.

The results of the KIDS COUNT Report confirmed that these issues are areas of concern in Morgan County. “Morgan County had slightly higher rates than the average Georgia state rates in some of these areas,” explained Hardy.

“In some areas we are doing well and in some areas we need improvement. Here at Family Connection, we pay attention to all the data to better help the community that we serve.” One of the initiatives is the The Youth Development strategy, which aims to increase the number of students who graduate on time and decrease the number of times students are absent from school throughout the year.

The KIDS COUNT Report revealed that Morgan County High School has higher on-time graduation rates than the overall state average of 80.8 percent, yielding an 87.5 percent graduation rate. However, Morgan County has a higher rate of student absences than those of other counties across Georgia.

The state average for 15 days or more of absences is 8.8 percent and Morgan County’s rate is 10.6 percent. “Because of that information, we decided to really focus on continuing to improve graduation rates and reduce the number of youths absent 15 days or more from school.

Those are the benchmarks we are looking at,” said Hardy. Family Connection has also set sights on reducing alcohol and drug use among youth as well as preventing teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs among youth.

The upcoming Teen Maze project set to take place in April 2014 at Morgan County High School, an event run by the 4-H Club, will combine the goals of The Youth Development Strategy, The Drug and Alcohol Free Youth Strategy and Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention Strategy. According to Hardy, a maze will be constructed in the gymnasium of MCHS. Students will wander through a maze of “bad decisions” to see the possible consequences of making similar decisions, such as drinking and driving, using drugs, dropping out of school, unplanned pregnancies, or having unprotected sex.

“It will raise awareness about unwise choices and the very real dangers of bad decisions,” said Hardy. The latest data reveals that in 2011-2012, Morgan County had higher rates of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use compared with the Georgia State average rates.

According to the KIDS COUNT Report, Morgan County faired slightly better than Georgia has a whole concerning teen pregnancy rates. Morgan County ranked a 2.59 percent teen pregnancy rate, where as the Georgia State average rate was 2.8 percent.

The Morgan County rates for STDs among youth were lower than state averages, but in the past three years, the percentage of STDs among Morgan County youth has risen from 1.75 percent to 2.69 percent, according to the report. Family Connection also wants to better prepare the youth for their soon-coming transition into adulthood.

The Educated Working Community Strategy is part of the effort to increase the number of GED graduates for adults ages 16 and over who do not currently have their GED and to ensure students are career and college ready.

“We are currently writing and applying for the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant in order to implement a new youth entrepreneur program to work with youth on leadership skills and soft skills, making sure they are ready to graduate. It is so important for youth to gain leadership skills that are so key to getting employed once they graduate from high school and college,” explained Hardy.

Undergirding all the other Family Connection initiatives is the Children Safe and Families Strong Strategy, which aims to ensure children are safe and families are strong and self-sufficient.

“We always want to find ways to reduce the number of substantiated incidents of child abuse and neglect. Our rate had been above the Georgia rates in recent years, so we really wanted to focus on addressing this issue,” said Hardy. Family Connection’s First Steps Program provides families with information most relevant to their needs, said Hardy.

“We want to ensure that parents know the resources available to them in the community, to provide the support they need. It’s all about getting them information and connecting them to whatever resources they may need within the community,” said Hardy. According to Family Connection, The KIDS COUNT Report is a vital resource used to hone strategies for helping the community.

“The central focus of Family Connection is let people know the needs of the community and building the relationships and partnerships needed to address those needs. KIDS COUNT is a great way for the community to learn how Morgan County is doing as it relates to children and families,” said Hardy. To view and learn more about the KIDS COUNT Report, visit: www.datacenter.kidscount.org/data#USA/1/0.