Maine's Contrasting Statistics on Children

 

The Children's Rights Council recently declared Maine as the best state to raise a child. However, a closer look at all available statistics show the state lagging behind in several important categories.

In the words of one key official: "We may start them out right," says Dr. Dora Mills, director of Maine's Bureau of Health, "but they don't end right."

The national advocacy group, in its ranking of all 50 states, cited criteria such as rates for prenatal care, infant mortality, immunization, child poverty and high-school dropouts -- categories in which Maine is strong.

The study, however, did not take into account how the states compare on nutrition, exercise, dental care or post-secondary education --categories in which the state fares poorly. Nor did it consider tobacco use, cancer incidence and guns in the home, areas where Maine tops the lists.

"We have an extremely high rate of chronic and preventable diseases, and those diseases have common risk factors which start in childhood," adds Mills.

For example, three-fourths of those in Maine die of four diseases: cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and emphysema. The common risk factors for all four are tobacco addiction, poor diet and lack of exercise.

The most recent statistics from the American Cancer Society ranks Maine fifth behind Delaware, Louisiana, Connecticut and Maryland in overall cancer rates. The percentage differences among those states were so slight, however, that it was a virtual five-way tie. The American Cancer Society estimates that Maine will have 1,100 new cases of lung cancer this year, and a major reason for high cancer incidence is tobacco use. According to Mills, Maine has the highest young adult (18 to 30 years of age) tobacco addiction rate in the country. Young adults are addicted to tobacco two-and-a-half times the rate of those over 55. And among Maine youths under the age of 18 who are addicted to tobacco, based on a Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in about 30 states, the state ranks in the top five.

The lack of proper nutrition is also a health problem in the state. Only one in 10 Mainers, for instance, eats the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, Mills says. "It's a cultural issue," Mills explains. "When you have big tobacco and Big Macs being advertised ... it's a lot to combat some of that."

Healthful activity is another issue. Only one in 20 Maine adults gets the recommended at least 20 minutes, three times a week aerobic type of exercise. The national average is considerably higher.

Another chronic preventable condition afflicting children in Maine is tooth decay. Among those in their 20s, Mills says, one in six have had more than half of their teeth pulled. The major reasons are lack of fluoridation -- about half the state's water supply comes from private wells -- and lack of preventive dental care.

"Forty percent of children under six are on Medicaid," she explains, "but most dentists in the state do not take children on Medicaid."

One of the distinctions cited by the Children's Rights Council was Maine's low public secondary school dropout rate. Close to 90 percent of the students graduate, one of the best records in the country. But only 60.5 percent of them go on to post-secondary education or training, which is one of the worst records in the country.

Judy Lucarelli, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education, says the large graduation rate is because students receive a lot of attention from educators. The schools and school districts are small, allowing for more individual assistance. But not enough of the students continue their education, because of a cultural problem.

"The education level of our adult population is low," Lucareilli says, explaining that there is not enough family encouragement for children to go on to college or technical school. "It's something that we've tried to figure out how to tackle on a statewide basis."

Another criterion used by the Children's Rights Council in its rankings involved the percentage of children referred for investigation of abuse and neglect.

Measuring domestic violence against children, however, is a very inexact process, according to state officials.

"There are very few indicators that you can use to follow it," says Mills, "so it's very difficult to ascertain a ranking of child abuse. It's not like an immunization rate."

Maine children also are at greater risk of accidental gunshots in the home, according to several state officials.

Department of Public Safety spokesman Stephen McCausland says the state does not keep track of gun accidents involving children. But other officials, who requested anonymity, say they would expect the number of children who suffer some sort of firearm-associated injury to be high, given the large number of guns in Maine homes.

A newly released report by Hand Gun Control, the national anti-gun lobby, gives Maine an F grade for its failure to pass child access prevention legislation.

George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, says the state's per capita gun ownership is second only to Alaska's -- based on estimates by the National Rifle Association. There is no accurate way to measure the number, however, since Maine does not require firearm registration.

When the Children's Right Council announced its findings earlier this summer, Maine Gov. Angus King traveled to Washington to accept the honor. King said that Maine's success with children was based on attacking each problem directly, though he added that the distinction was "not an indicator of absolute victory but an indicator of relative victory."

Mills puts it another way. "We start our kids out really well, it's a great place to have a child," she says. "But there are these preventable risk factors that start in childhood, where we do very poorly."

 
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