Kids Count report presents grim findings

Pam Adams GateHouse News Service

PEORIA — Illinois is a national leader in early childhood education, but state funding for pre-school programs has been cut substantially since 2010.

The state has one of the lowest percentages of uninsured children in the nation, but childhood poverty rates keep increasing in the Tri-County Area. The number of Illinois children in foster care has dropped drastically since the late 1990s, but the numbers outside Chicago, in counties such as Tazewell and Woodford, are on the rise.

Local child welfare officials tried to put the best possible face on Illinois Kids Count 2013, the annual progress report on the state's children. But the data, not to mention the specter of deeper budget cuts, kept getting in the way.

Voices for Illinois Children, a Chicago-based child advocacy group, released the latest Kids Count report with simultaneous news conferences throughout the state, including one in Peoria at The Center for Youth and Family Solutions attended by about 40 people whose work involves children's well-being. Voices' president, Gaylord Gieseke, speaking at the Urbana launch, piggy-backed on President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech three days ago, urging lawmakers to re-invest in high-quality early childhood education.

Gieseke also challenged legislators to do what it takes to rid Illinois of a "very sobering" distinction — the nation's worst in state funding for public education.

"It wasn't that long ago that investments in children were a high priority in Illinois," Gieseke said. "We can't continue to allow the state's fiscal crisis to justify policy choices that put our children, families and communities at risk."

Local leaders echoed some of Gieseke's concerns.

"We want Illinois legislators to make smart decisions that make better lives for children," said Trish Fox, CEO of The Center for Youth and Family Solutions.

Laraine Bryson, president of the Tri-County Urban League, added, "When we invest in all of our children, we all benefit."

Other speakers included Doug Allan, CEO of FamilyCore; Dr. Kay Saving, medical director of Children's Hospital of Illinois; Patti Bash, health educator and a founder of Hult Center for Health Education; and Greg Westbrooks, director of child welfare services at The Center for Youth and Family Solutions.

Among the findings specific to Tri-County children:

From 2010 to 2012, the number of state-funded slots in early childhood education programs dropped 234 seats, from 2,128 spots to 1,894. Peoria County lost 122, Woodford County lost 60, and Tazewell County lost 42.

From 1999 to 2011, child poverty rates went from 21 percent to 25 percent in Peoria County, 7 percent to 13 percent in Tazewell County and 6 percent to 13 percent in Woodford County.