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Sarah Hinkle

SARAH HINKLE

In these politically divisive times, knowing where to find factual and nonpartisan information can be challenging. Being accurately informed about the issues facing children and youth can greatly help parents, professionals, and policy makers to prepare young people for the challenges and opportunities that Montana has in store for them.

Where we excel

It’s no surprise why Montana is ranked 10th in the nation for family and community well-being as nearly three-quarters of children belong to families with married parents, and both single and teenage motherhood rates have declined. An overwhelming majority of Montana’s children and teenagers feel close to their parents or a trusted adult, and feel safe at school and in their neighborhood. These findings are remarkable given the preponderance of school shootings and research indicating that safety is one of the greatest predictors of school success.

Nearly three-quarters of Montana’s families read to their children under the age of 6 more than four times a week. More high-schoolers graduate on time each year, and parents are more educated than they were previously. Montana’s schools are also helping youth succeed: More fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading and math, and Montana is ranked within the top 16 states nationally in these categories. These gains can be partially attributed to Montana’s commitment to improving the educational systems serving youth and to increased access to high-quality educational materials and opportunities, such as high-speed internet at rural schools and increased funding for early childhood educational programs.

We’re improving

With unemployment rates shrinking from 7.2 percent in 2010 to 3.7 percent as of December 2018, Montana’s families are faring better than they have in years. Fewer children live in poverty, fewer parents lack employment today than they have for 20 years, and the number of children receiving public assistance has decreased. Unfortunately, poverty continues to affect 15 percent of Montana children: most vulnerable are children under 6 who live in rural communities and on reservations.

Montana’s families, schools, and health care providers are working to help keep our children healthy. Babies and expecting mothers are healthier than ever, and only 8 percent of Montana children are in poor health. More children and families have health insurance as only 11,000 kids were uninsured in 2016 compared to 32,000 in 2008. Although Montana’s teenagers engage in risky behaviors more frequently than in other states, these behaviors have drastically decreased over the last 20 years. Teenage alcohol and drug use are becoming less frequent, and young drivers are safer than ever with high rates of seat belt use and lower rates of drinking and driving.

Not safe enough

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Tragically, Montana children remain at risk for neglect, abuse and early death. The child and teenage death rates remain high when compared to similar states as Montana ranks second-to-last and fourth-to-last, respectively. Confirmed cases of child maltreatment spiked to record-high numbers in 2016 and as a result more Montana children are in foster care. Unique challenges face Montana, including the mounting methamphetamine and opioid crises, reductions in child protection service workers, the prevalence of suicide, and limited access to health care in remote communities.

In 2019, Montanans have a tremendous opportunity to reassert their collective commitment to the next generation. Consider small steps to invest yourself in Montana’s children: Teach children in your neighborhood a new skill, ask a newly minted parent how you might help them, or talk to an elected official about children’s issues that matter to you.

Above all, stay informed. Visit the University of Montana’s Center for Children, Family and Workforce Development website to learn more and to assist in the collective effort to improve the lives of Montana’s children and families.

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Sarah Monich Hinkle is an MSW student at the University of Montana and a behavioral health intern at St. Patrick's Neurobehavioral Unit.

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