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COLUMN: These new numbers about our region's children are scary but important

'Warning signs are out there'

Look, I know people don't like stories with a lot of numbers.

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But numbers can be important -- sometimes even life-or-death important. So please stick with me, at least for a few more paragraphs. Consider these new statistics:

• 10 percent of Indiana high school students reported being physically hurt on purpose by someone they were dating.

• 12.6 percent of Indiana high school students said they were victims of sexual dating violence.

• 19.8 percent of Indiana high school students -- nearly one in five -- have seriously considered suicide.

• And suicide was the second-leading cause of death for Indiana young people between the ages of 15 and 24, both in 2014 and 2015.

These are some of the blood-chilling numbers in the 2017 KIDS COUNT Indiana Data Book, released early this morning by Indiana Youth Institute.

Don't fool yourself into believing these are only Indiana problems, though. The numbers for Kentucky and Ohio are scary, too. Experts say many of them are tied to the complex problem of child poverty.

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In the Tri-State as a whole, nearly one in five kids lives below the federal poverty level. The federal government considers a family "poor" if the annual income is $24,300 or less for a household of four people.

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RELATED: Child Poverty in Tri-State remains high

I know, more numbers.

But those numbers are important, too, because so many of the struggles kids face relate to their families' economic instability, said Tami Silverman, Indiana Youth Institute's CEO.

"We know particularly with suicide, there can be a direct link in that family stress is one of the top contributing factors," Silverman said. "And economic stress is one of those leading family stressors."

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, put it this way: "Tragedies occur in every ZIP code. But tragedies occur far more frequently in ZIP codes that are impoverished than in ZIP codes that are affluent."

So what can we do to make these terrible, important numbers lower?

'Warning signs are out there'

Perhaps most importantly, we as parents and concerned adults need to start looking for warning signs earlier, Brooks said.

"If we want to know dating violence rates and suicide trajectories for 16-year-olds in 10 years, we need to look at what's going on with 6-year-olds today," Brooks said. "We'll learn a lot more than we thought we could."

Silverman agreed that it's a matter of being mindful.

"Warning signs are out there," she said. "And we as parents and caring adults need to really pay attention."

When it comes to dating violence, we need to teach our kids about healthy relationships and about behaviors that aren't healthy.

Silverman used to offer training to teens. And when she would tell a group of teenage girls that it was not OK for their boyfriends to dictate what they could wear, she said there were always girls in the room who were surprised to hear it.

"Many teens don't really know what a healthy relationship should look or feel like, particularly teens who haven't seen that in their own home life," she said.

Communication is important when it comes to reducing teen suicide rates, too.

Parents and caring adults must be able to talk with kids about their feelings and concerns, and they should pay attention to what Brooks called "little things" that can mean a lot.

"A kid complains about being hassled at school or a kid begins to spend more and more time alone," he said. "Increasing isolation, radical changes in behavior or appetite or mood. In the busy-ness of day-to-day life, it's easy to kind of blow those off."

But those little signals can be evidence of much bigger problems that parents can miss, he said.

Brooks also recommends that parents do their homework on community mental health resources or faith organizations that they might need in the event of a crisis so they're not trying to make decisions on the fly.

All of those tips make a lot of sense to me. But as a parent, it feels overwhelming. My husband and I can do our best to look out for our own daughters.

But what about all the kids who are feeling the weight of their families' financial struggles?

"Until and unless we address childhood poverty, we haven't even begun to address teen dating violence and teen suicide," Brooks said. "It doesn't solve everything. But it sure goes a long way in beginning to solve them."

That's why all those numbers are so important. Because if we don't know how big the problem is, we won't have any idea how hard we need to work to solve it.

More information about the new 2017 KIDS COUNT Indiana Data Book is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

 

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