Kids Count: Racial disparities continue to severely impact R.I. children, families

PROVIDENCE – As Rhode Island’s population continues to grow in diversity, the state must urgently address disparities that disproportionately impact children of color, Rhode Island Kids Count notes in its 2023 factbook. 

The organization’s 29th factbook, released Monday, found that “unacceptable gaps continue to exist between children of color and white children in nearly every factbook indicator,” said Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count.  

These disparities, which can be found across metrics such as financial wellbeing, education and health care, track back to “the history of racist policies that created current racial disparities,” Clausius-Parks continued.  

Rhode Island’s population continued to grow in diversity over the past several years, the report notes: 46% of babies born in 2020 were babies of color; 23% of children ages five to 17 spoke a language other than English at home from 2017 to 2021; and in 2021, 16% of high school students identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, while 3% identified as transgender.

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The report notes stark economic disparities between children of color and white children: Of the 15% of Rhode Island children living in poverty between 2017 and 2021, 76% were children of color.  

American Indian children were particularly affected by poverty, Kids Count found, accounting for 56% of those impacted. Additionally, 30% of Hispanic children and 35% of Asian/Pacific Islander children lived in poverty between 2017 and 2021, while white children made up 10% of this population. 

Tthe state’s housing crisis has played a significant role in driving poverty for children and families, the factbook notes: In 2022 280 families with 559 children stayed in a homeless or other emergency shelter, and 170 youth or young adults stayed in a shelter. 

While Rhode Island had the fourth-highest rate of youth health care coverage in the U.S., with 97.5% of children covered in 2021, the report described disproportionate health risks for children of color. 

Among these disparities, the report found a Black infant mortality rate of 10.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 5.1 deaths across all races. White infants had the lowest birth mortality rate, at 2.9 per 1,000 live births. 

While structural racism is “the root of disparities” for Black mothers and their babies, the report states, Rhode Island must address this infant mortality rate through strategies such as “improving the quality of perinatal health care for Black families, increasing support in navigating the health care system, increasing access to midwives and doulas, training providers to address implicit racial biases, increasing diversity of the health care workforce and dismantling barriers to mental healthcare for families of color.”

Around one-third, or 36% of Rhode Island children, encountered barriers in accessing mental health care, according to the report. These obstacles were particularly prevalent for children of color and LGBTQ+ students, who also had higher rates of mental health care needs. 

Nearly 10% of Rhode Island students reported that they had attempted suicide at least once in the past year, and 17 teenagers aged 15 to 19 died from suicide between 2017 and 2021. 

Puerto Rican and non-Hispanic Black children had the highest asthma rates, which Kids Count notes as the leading cause of emergency department visits for children, as well as school absenteeism.  

Other common reasons for chronic absences, the report found, were transportation barriers, personal stress and a perception that school has little value. 

Many students also face language barriers in school: While multilingual/English learners increased by 88% from 2011 to 2022, just 3% of Rhode Island public school teachers and instructional coordinators have an active certification in languages other than English. 

Speaking on the overall findings, Clausius-Parks said the organization calls on lawmakers “to prioritize equitable solutions that will eliminate disparities and ensure that children and families can move forward with the health, educational, and economic supports they need to thrive. 

“Rhode Island will not prosper if we continue to leave our children of color, low-income children, children with disabilities, multilingual Learners, and immigrants behind. Their needs and voices should be at the forefront of policymaking,” she said.