SOCIAL ISSUES

‘Babies Count’ report finds some of state’s youngest start life at a disadvantage

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

More than 310,000 babies and toddlers under age three call New Jersey home. They can’t personally tell you what life’s like, but a brand-new report shows they’re a diverse bunch, many beset by poverty. Advocates for Children of New Jersey released the first-ever study called “Babies Count.” It’s mission?

“To provide a clear picture based on objective data of how babies are doing in New Jersey, what we are doing well to support their growth and development and what still needs to be improved,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

The report says needy families can thrive with proper help. Visiting nurse Christina Ramos taught a 45-year-old mom how to interact with her child.

“Teach her things that the kids don’t know. Play music. Run around with her,” said mom Monique Jackson.

“Being able to teach them how to play with their baby and how it helps the child’s development is really big,” said Ramos.

Some quick facts about these kids: 57 percent are children of color, and 41 percent of births are to foreign-born mothers. Thirty-five percent of them are low-income, where a family of four earns less than $49,000 a year. Almost 70 percent have moms who work outside the home, and many are struggling, experts say, especially with childcare.

“That busy mom — who has a limited time with that child, or is so stressed or depressed — needs to know she’s dropping that child off at a place where that professional understands that they can be a buffer to all the stresses that are surrounding that child in their life,” said Dr. Arturo Brito, a pediatrician and executive director of the Nicholson Foundation.

Child care is expensive, and it costs more for the littlest kids. The report says 44 percent of New Jersey’s child care centers are licensed to care for infants and toddlers. Even when parents qualify for state subsidies, only 12 percent of child care centers will accept $167 a week as payment in full for infants. And only 19 percent will accept the $165 a week subsidy as full payment for toddlers. But what about families who can’t afford it?

“We talked about people going to underground centers, or mom and dad. They go to a family member, or someone down the street they know who’s watching children, right?” said Alana Vega, Kids Count coordinator. “Or mother chooses not to work and then that family as a result loses that income from the mom and falls below the poverty level.”

The darker side of these statistics show that 26 percent of kids in New Jersey’s out-of-home foster care system are the littlest ones. Ten out of 17 child deaths due to abuse were kids under three. Tragically, these young children experience deep trauma at a crucial moment in their development.

“It is the best opportunity we have to impact lifelong health of that child, the community, our state, and for that matter, our country. This is why we need to do more in those first few years,” said Brito.

The study discussed infant mortality. The United States recorded 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2015, but Jersey logged a lower rate at 4.8. The disparity between white and black is stark: the mortality rate for white newborns in New Jersey was 3.0 per 1,000, compared to 9.7 for black babies. And the higher rate holds for black newborns despite their mother’s education level, with 7.3 deaths for babies born to college grads versus 10.8 for high school grads.

The Murphy administration just awarded $4.3 million in grants to help address this issue. Cecilia Lopez with VNA Healthy Families explained pregnant moms can face unexpected hurdles, like language barriers.

“All the time, we’re looking for a staff who speaks the same language that the person needs. Because we need to be clear, especially when baby is coming,” Lopez said.

Here’s some good news. In births to teen moms, the U.S. counted 8.8 for every 1,000 girls age 15 to 17; New Jersey’s rate was half that at 4.4. And only 3 percent of all 310,000 kids had no health insurance and almost all got follow-up postnatal care.

But a dental expert told the story of a two-year-old boy who needed 18 teeth extracted.

“I believe that putting the dollars in prevention programs, education and not at the tail end when we have this huge problem,” said Dr. Nicole McGrath, president and CEO of KinderSmile Foundation.

Improving the lives of these smallest New Jersey residents will take time, money and determination, but now there’s a benchmark to measure progress.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.