Soaring unemployment numbers, a growing rate of bankruptcies and a shrinking median income for families in Jackson County are making life increasingly tough for the county's youngest residents, an annual report on the status of children in Oregon has pointed out.

Soaring unemployment numbers, a growing rate of bankruptcies and a shrinking median income for families in Jackson County are making life increasingly tough for the county's youngest residents, an annual report on the status of children in Oregon has pointed out.

Children First for Oregon's County Data Book 2008 released today highlights that recessionary conditions have undermined the financial stability of families, limiting more children's access to basics such as food, housing and health care, and potentially increasing their risk of abuse and neglect.

"We recognize that when the financial situation deteriorates, kids are at risk," said Angela Curtis, director of the Jackson County Commission on Children and Families. "We need to keep focused on helping families and kids get through this."

She noted that issues facing families in tough times are complex and inter-related — sometimes in unexpected ways.

For example, the Children First report shows that 3.8 percent of Jackson County high school students, or 366 teens, dropped out during the 2006-'07 school year. That was an improvement over the 4.7 percent, or 447 dropouts, reported in the previous year.

"That's a credit to schools here," Curtis said.

However, in a separate Oregon Department of Education report, Jackson County dropouts said attending three or more high schools was one of the top five reasons they left school. That reason wasn't in the top five for Oregon students overall.

Bankruptcies, foreclosures and job losses can all force frequent moves for families, and thus could create challenges for students finishing high school. Education can provide a key to breaking the cycle of poverty and neglect, Curtis said.

"As a community, we must be proactive to maintain the progress we have made," she said.

The Children First report includes information on a variety of economic indicators social service providers watch.

The 2008 report notes that in 2007 the county's bankruptcy rate was 2.48 per 1,000 people, about a 54 percent increase from a rate of 1.61 per 1,000 the previous year.

New unemployment claims in Jackson County in November 2008 were up 68 percent from November 2007. Statewide, the number of claims climbed 58 percent in that period.

Based on 2007 figures, 18,595 of the county's 45,605 children 17 and younger lived in households that are considered low-income because they make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Of those, 7,025 children lived in poverty.

During the 2007-08 school year, the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — another measure of poverty — grew to 9,118, or 41.9 percent, up from 8,410, or 40.6 percent.

The 2008 estimated median family income slipped to $50,500 from $52,700 the previous year. The 2008 estimate is 14 percent lower than the statewide median of $58,700.

"Things may be even more concerning because the economy has continued to decline since this report was prepared," Curtis said.

Social service providers will remain on alert for trickle-down effects such as increased abuse, neglect and substance abuse, she said.

The report, using 2007 numbers, showed good news on that front in Jackson County, with cases of confirmed child abuse or neglect dropping to 440 from 455 the previous year. Another 320 children younger than 17 were found to be under threat of harm, down from 424. Abuse and neglect rates dropped slightly statewide, but it remains to be seen whether this decline is a temporary change or the beginning of a trend, the Children First report said.

Doug Mares, the Oregon Department of Human Services district manager for Jackson and Josephine counties, fears that abuse and neglect numbers will be up — in part because of economic stress — when the 2008 figures are tallied.

He said the department has seen "huge increases" in requests for food stamps and cash assistance each month compared with a year ago.

"Then we'll see an increase in the child welfare case load," he said, explaining that stress can fracture families, prompting violence or pushing parents toward drugs or alcohol.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.