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State Senate panel studies roots of child poverty

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's high teen pregnancy rate is a leading cause of childhood poverty in the state, according to both speakers at the first meeting of the State Senate's select committee on child poverty.The statistics presented Wednesday show a vicious circle: children who grow up in poverty are more likely to become teen parents and then drop out of high school, meaning their children are more likely to grow up in poverty and become teen parents themselves.West Virginia ranks 40th nationally in teen pregnancy rates, although there is a wide variance in teen pregnancy rates in different counties across the state. For instance, Monongalia County has the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the state at 14 teen pregnancies per 1,000 births, less than half the national average. But McDowell County's rate, the state's highest, is 95 per 1,000 births, nearly triple the national average.Margie Hale, the director of West Virginia Kids Count, the organization that compiled the statistics, said that teaching sex education is one of the best-proven ways of reducing teen pregnancy."We know that this is the major tool to reduce teen pregnancy,'' Hale said of sex education. "So kids understand how to say no, how to avoid risky behaviors and how to use birth control if they need to.''The state Department of Education mandates that certain sex education standards must be taught to all students, but it is up to individual schools and teachers to determine how to teach those standards. The standards may be abstinence based but cannot be abstinence only, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.Hale said that the standards are taught haphazardly and she said that the governor's office has been unwilling to give her information on how sex education is taught locally.Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, a former Marion County school administrator, expressed concern about the impact of some of the state's social services on teen pregnancy, although he stressed he didn't want to take services away from anyone."If a girl has a baby, the agency steps in and gives them a place to live and provides room and board, well, that's a pretty good deal for a junior or senior in high school,'' Prezioso said.
While Hale spoke primarily about the causes and spread of childhood poverty, Patricia S. Kusimo, president of the Education Alliance, talked about some of the effects of childhood poverty.Kusimo talked about the damage toxic stress does to young children. Toxic stress is stress that is severe and sustained and is often the result of damaging problems such as homelessness, hunger, absentee parents, domestic violence and drug abuse.Toxic stress can have actual physical impact on the brain development of young children, resulting in weakened language development and a lack of self-control.Kusimo said that early childhood is crucially important. She said that children that live with high levels of toxic stress from birth to age 4 are already behind by the time they enter school. She also said that children who are behind grade level by the time they finish third grade tend not to catch up.In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also stressed the importance of early childhood education."If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade, bad things happen,'' Tomblin said. "They will remain poor readers in high school, and they will be more likely to become high school dropouts.''
This was the first meeting of the select committee. It is comprised of select Senate leadership from both parties, as well as the chairmen of the Finance, Judiciary, Education, Health and Agriculture Committees.Senate Majority Leader John Unger, the select committee chairman, said that they will meet year round and travel to communities around the state to see the problem of poverty up close."Poverty is more than economic,'' Unger said. "If a child is hungry or a child is worried about what they're going to go home to, how can we expect that child to achieve?'' 
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