Early childhood care, a key service for those in poverty, is tough to find for families across La Plata County, a Colorado Children’s Campaign report released Thursday found.
The annual “Kids Count in Colorado” report tracks child wellbeing at the state and county levels by measuring family income, access to health care and other factors. Data mostly from 2015 showed that racial disparities persist across the state.
The report also used information gathered in focus groups held in Denver, Alamosa, Fort Morgan and Durango. Durango was chosen as a focus group site, in part, because La Plata County is home to the Southern Ute Indian tribe.
In La Plata County, the percentage of children living in poverty declined from 13 percent in 2014 to about 11.5 percent in 2015. This is slightly below the state average of 14.8 percent, according to the report.
The child poverty rate in Montezuma County, at 28.7 percent, is nearly double the state’s average, according to the report. Montezuma County is home to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
Montelores Early Childhood Council coordinator Vangi McCoy said children who grow up in poverty are likely to have different experiences and environments.
“Children exposed to poverty at a young age often have trouble academically later in life, and have a much greater chance of dropping out of high school,” she said.
Federal Head Start funding provides free child care to families in poverty.
Free child care “really allows parents to start working to get on that path of being employed,” said Eileen Wasserbach, executive director of the Southern Ute Community Action Programs.
Early childhood education supports early language development and early literacy, and early childhood teachers can teach parents how to work with their kids at home, said Heather Hawk, the executive director of the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County.
Most early childhood education centers in La Plata County have full enrollment and wait lists, Hawk said.
Across the county, there are enough slots for 40 percent of the children who could be enrolled in childcare, she said. The shortage in care is driven in part because early childhood teachers can make more money in other fields, she said.
Katrina Lindus with the Montelores Early Childhood Council said being a parent is challenging in Southwest Colorado, and struggling parents shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help.
Parenting is expensive, but spending time with your kids doesn’t cost any money, she said. It’s very important that parents read and play with their kids.
“That’s the No. 1 thing you can do, whether you have $1 or $1 million,” Lindus said.
Gaps between ethnic groupsStatewide, the report reveals disparities between white students and students of color.
“Structural and institutional barriers have created the educational disparities we see between students of color and white students, and those are carried into adulthood,” Colorado Children’s Campaign research analyst Sarah Hughes said in a webinar.
The report found that Native American children are four times more likely to live in poverty than white children. About 35 percent of the state’s Native American kids live in poverty, while 9 percent of white kids are affected.
In some cases, children of color are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty even when their families live above the poverty level.
Between 2011 and 2015, 11 percent of non-poor Native American children lived in areas of concentrated poverty.
McCoy said she sees more gaps in socioeconomic status and gender of kids, but racial differences still exist.
“Racial gaps do begin when entering the elementary schools, and it affects not only learning but also social/emotional development and self-esteem,” she said.
At the Southern Ute Montessori Head Start and Early Head Start, the affluence of the tribe has allowed the programs to accept white and Hispanic children. The schools serve about 140 families and they represent all three major ethnicities in town, Wasserbach said.
As part of the curriculum, all students learn Ute and Spanish in school, she said.
“Culture is a big part of the program,” she said.
Across the state, racial gaps in health insurance coverage also are apparent in the data.
Over the past few years, health insurance coverage has improved for children of all ethnicities. In 2015, 7 percent of Montezuma County and La Plata County children were not covered. Across Colorado, 4.4 percent of kids weren’t covered that year, the report states.
Still, Native American children are far less likely than white children to be covered in Colorado. In 2015, 13.3 percent of Colorado’s Native American children did not have health coverage, while just 3.4 percent of white children were not covered.
Native American residents in La Plata County praised community health clinics that provide culturally responsive services, the report stated.
The report typically does not include suggestions for policy proposals or legislative solutions based on the data, Hughes said. However, the group hopes state and local officials will use the data to guide policy decisions regarding child wellbeing.
Hughes said it’s important for policies to be created by people who have faced the issues detailed in the report.
“It’s important for those decisions to be led and informed by the people who are experiencing them,” she said.