News Briefs for May 2004

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Youth Suicides Often Exceed Murders

In most states, youth are more likely to die from suicide than murder, according to a new report from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Based on juvenile suicides between 1981 and 1998, thirty-two states had higher suicide rates than homicide rates among youth ages 7 to 17. From 1983 through 1987, the number of juvenile suicides nationally equaled the number of juvenile homicides.

The study, “Juvenile Suicides, 1981-1998,” reveals wide disparities between states with the lowest and highest suicide rates, but veterans in the suicide prevention field say there’s not enough research to explain why the rates differ so greatly.

Study author Howard Snyder, director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, based in Pittsburgh, says the report was written to “put the [juvenile] suicide problem in a context – a simple idea, comparison, that people could see.”

Experts in the field say the number of youth suicides always surprises people. “When I say suicide is more common than homicide in most states, people are just shocked,” says Sue Eastgard, director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program in Seattle. “Clearly, we talk much more about victims of homicide.”

Snyder says his original assumption was that suicide rates among juveniles would tend to follow the patterns of juvenile homicide rates.

He was “shocked” at how low suicide rates were in such states as California, New York and New Jersey, considering their relatively high murder rates. These states, he points out, “have more trained people to deal with mental health and simply have bigger mental health communities.”

The report does not correlate state suicide rates with any factor. But a comparison of its suicide data with a report by the Research Institute at the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors shows a correlation between youth suicide rates and the amount of money spent by state mental health agencies.

Of the states with the 10 lowest suicide rates, ranging from 15.3 to 24.5 per 1 million juveniles, only two small states (Rhode Island and Hawaii) ranked outside the top one-third in total mental health spending. Also among those 10 states, only Hawaii and Pennsylvania had more suicides than homicides among youth between 7 and 17.

The 10 states with the highest rates (between 68.2 and 47.1 per 1 million) mirrored that pattern. Nine of the 10 ranked in the bottom one-third in total mental health spending (Colorado was the exception), and all of the 10 had more suicides than homicides in the youth age group.

Mental health spending may or may not be one factor in a state’s suicide rate, Eastgard says, but in her experience, it woud not be the only one. See sees geography and population density as significant contributors to suicide rates.

“There are definitely issues with feelings of isolation as a result of living in rural, impoverished neighborhoods,” Eastgard says.
While kids in states with more suburbs and cities can easily seek out professional attention for suicidal ideation, she says, those in sparsely populated states in Middle America are often hours from help.

The convergence of geographic and economic factors manifests itself most among Native American populations, particularly those living in poverty on the large reservations west of the Mississippi River.

Native American youth commit suicide at a rate of 57 per 1 million, 83 percent higher than white juveniles. Native Americans account for 1.8 percent of the United States population, according to 2002 census data. Among the 10 states with the worst suicide rates, five have a Native American population of more than 6 percent.

Another state characteristic tied to suicide rates is gun ownership. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health (“Household Firearm Ownership and Suicide Rates in the United States,” 2002) concluded that where household firearm ownership levels are highest, a disproportionately large number of people die from suicide.

Contact: National Center for Juvenile Justice (412) 227-6950,; study available at

New Rules On Overtime Pay

The long-awaited federal overhaul of overtime rules was announced last month, and it doesn’t look as if they’ll have much impact on most youth workers.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced the new regulations governing overtime pay for white-collar workers, aiming to clarify what people on both sides of labor issues view as murky guidelines that determine who qualifies for overtime compensation.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, employees who work more than 40 hours in a week are generally entitled to time-and-a-half pay. Exceptions to this guideline are based on salary and job responsibility.

The old rules automatically awarded overtime pay to anyone making less than $8,060 a year, a figure that clearly had to be updated. The new rules raise that threshold to $23,660, which might qualify some social service workers (estimated by the DOL to total 2.3 million) for overtime pay. The mean annual salary among social workers is $23,370, according to the DOL.

Approximately 1.3 million people will automatically be eligible for overtime because of the higher salary threshold, said department spokesman Ed Frank.

But many professionals in the youth field will be exempt because of their qualifications. Rules preclude managers, employees who qualify as “learned” professionals, and computer-related employees from the overtime requirement. This exempts professionals, including many social workers, from the requirement that they collect overtime for working more than 40 hours per week.

“I don’t think the rules will have a major impact one way or the other for our organizations,” says Peter Goldberg, CEO of the Alliance for Children and Families. But he says that for the thousands of low-income clients served by the 350 social service agencies the alliance represents, the higher threshold “can only be a benefit.”

The rules also exclude employees who make $100,000 or more, even if they’re not exempted professionals. According to Frank, 107,000 people will be affected by that exemption. An earlier version of the rules exempted anyone making more than $65,000, which the DOL said would have affected an estimated 640,000 workers.

The chief opponent of the revisions, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has introduced an amendment to pending legislation that would roll back many of the overtime exemptions.

“It is clear that workers who currently receive overtime pay now will lose it under this regulation,” Harkin said in a prepared statement. “As we say in Iowa, you can put lipstick on pig, but guess what? It’s still a pig.”

Contact: DOL (866) 487-2365. Facts about the new rules are available at:

Nonprofit Sues Child Welfare System

A nonprofit litigation group is taking the state of Mississippi to court to force improvements in its troubled child welfare system.
New York-based Children’s Rights, which has filed similar suits against 11 other locales, says Mississippi has allowed its system to ignore abuse claims and provide substandard assistance to the victims that are acknowledged.

“This is a state that has functionally closed the doors to the system,” says Shirim Nothenberg, the lead attorney in the case for Children’s Rights. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t have the money or staff, so we’re just going to close our eyes to abuse and neglect and not investigate all but the worst abuse.’”

Rick Whitlow, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS), says the state will not comment on pending litigation, and has “not reviewed [the lawsuit] to where they are in a position to respond” to it.

The situation in Mississippi, which routinely ranks among the worst in the nation on various indicators of child well-being, may be among the ugliest ever taken to task by Children’s Rights. The number of children in the custody of the state has decreased in recent years (by 18 percent between 2000 and 2002), but officials make no claim that the reduction is a sign of progress. In a self-assessment for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, the state’s Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS) said that with workloads as high as 130 children per caseworker, it has a “strong reluctance to bring any child into custody unless it is extremely necessary.”

Instead, the DFCS seeks first to place children in arrangements with relatives, even though it does not conduct background checks on all of those relatives before the placements. One plaintiff in the case, a 3-year-old girl, was placed with a relative who lived with the girl’s cousin, a convicted rapist.

The state had 31,664 reported cases of abuse or neglect in 1997, a 94 percent increase since 1990, according to the Child Welfare League of America. At the same time, the percentage of substantiated cases has dropped to 14.6 percent – half the national average. Child advocates say this indicates not less actual abuse, but less investigation of abuse claims.

In cases with no visible signs of abuse or neglect, the state will often choose not to investigate, according to former DFCS Director Sue Perry. Perry, who resigned in protest in 2001 over what she called the state’s failure to confront the problem, estimated in a 2001 memo that more than 6,200 alleged abuse and neglect cases were left unattended.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are recently elected Gov. Haley Barbour (R), MDHS Executive Director Donald Taylor and Billy Mangold, who heads the DFCS.

Contact: Children’s Rights (212) 683-2210,; MDHS (601) 359-9662,

More Workers at Youth Agencies

A new survey by a network of more than 300 youth-serving organizations indicates a jump in full-time hiring last year, while total spending dropped.

Comparing survey results from 125 members of the Alliance for Children and Families in 2003 with 2001, the study found that the number of full-time employees rose 2.3 percent. A similar survey last year showed an 8 percent decline in full-time employment between 2001 and 2002. (See “CEO Pay Rises,” March).

Of the respondents, 23 raised the salaries of their CEOs in 2003 while lowering the number of full-time employees.

Spending in 2003 increased nearly 3 percent from 2001, which means it dropped considerably from 2002, when overall spending jumped by 16 percent.

But the new study (“Human Services Compensation in North America”) and the one last year can’t be compared directly, says Tom Lengyel, who wrote them both. Each used a slightly different group of respondents, and the new study accounted for inflation, which reduces statistical shifts.

Nevertheless, Lengyel believes the newest data reflect how unusual last year’s results were. “It was a situation where the chickens came home to roost,” says Lengyel, referring to the effect of reductions in government and charitable support in 2002. “It was a very bad year” for alliance members.

Note: The March story in Youth Today about the 2003 survey paraphrased Lengyel saying that an increase in CEO salaries was “justifiable.” Lengyel said the salary increases were “within reason.”

Contact: (414) 359-1040,

Briefly …

Missing Kids Show Blasted: Child advocates are strongly criticizing a proposed CBS reality show that would use a team of former military and law enforcement personnel to recover abducted children. Groups such as the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children say “Recovery” would be distasteful and might impede the work of law enforcement. “These children … have already been extremely emotionally damaged by being abducted,” said Lindsay Brooks, investigating manager for Child Quest International.

Kids Lose in Health Care “Hassle”: More than 20,000 children have dropped out of Washington’s Medicaid program since the state made eligibility-verification more strict in April 2003. A University of Washington study points to the “hassle factor” as the reason behind this significant change. “We’re assuming that a lot of people were not bothering to go through with the documentation,” said Doug Porter, the state’s Medicaid director. The new rules demand proof of income every six months and provide for automatic and immediate suspension of benefits for children whose parents earn above a threshold amount.

Environmental Effects on Youth: The federal government plans to conduct its largest study ever of children. The study, beginning in 2006, will follow 100,000 kids from womb to age 21, examining the effects of different environments on children’s health. Subjects to be studied include the effect of TV on toddlers, a pregnant woman’s exposure to certain chemicals and potential effects on her child, and if genetics and pollution act together to cause asthma.

Criminal Brotherly Love: Two street-children in Harare, Zimbabwe, were arrested for stealing the equivalent of $23,000 from a retail store whose accountant, who was also arrested, agreed to leave the money on her desk and the window open. The kids used the money to buy clothes and food for other homeless children in Harare. An estimated two-thirds of Zimbabweans live in poverty and famine-like conditions, mostly attributed to a lack of arable land and the fiscal policies of President Robert Mugabe.

Few Witnesses to Abuse: A group dedicated to minimizing the sexual abuse of children says that many molestation cases among Jehovah’s Witnesses have gone undiscovered. Because of the Witnesses’ practice of needing two people to support an accusation of wrongdoing, says William Bowen, the religion’s organizational structure is a “pedophile paradise.”

Money for Abuse Victims: A jury last month awarded $37 million to victims of former Columbus, Ohio-based Lutheran minister Gerald Patton Thomas Jr. The lawsuit charged that former Bishop Mark Herbener of Texas and former bishop’s assistant Earl Eliason continually ignored warnings about Thomas’ behavior. In 2001, Thomas was sentenced to 397 years behind bars for molesting boys.

Scouts a Religious Group? A San Diego judge has ruled that the Desert Pacific Boys Scouts’ use of an aquatics center they lease on public land is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Napoleon Jones, who ruled against the Boy Scouts last summer on a public land issue, say the Scouts’ oath and leadership qualify it as a religious organization. Scouts spokeswoman Merrilee Boyack called the ruling “outlandish.” “Quite simply,” she said, “the Boy Scouts of America is not a church, and canoeing, kayaking and swimming are not religious activities.”

Straight Talkin’ on Foster Care: Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton-Strayhorn (R), affectionately known to many as “One Tough Grandma,” was incensed by the findings in her office’s recent report on foster care. Children had changed homes 40 times or more, the report said, and many have been sexually and physically abused. Claiming the conditions are “unacceptable,” Keeton-Strayhorn called for a massive overhaul of the Texas foster care system.