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39,000 SD children live in poverty

Carole Cochran, project director for South Dakota Kids Count, speaks Tuesday at the Mitchell Congregational United Church of Christ. (Chris Huber/Republic)

There are 39,000 South Dakota kids who live in poverty -- enough to fill Target Field, the home of the Minnesota Twins.

That's a mental image Carole Cochran, South Dakota Kids Count project director, left with a small group of people who attended an update on the status of South Dakota children Tuesday evening in Mitchell.

The briefing, conducted by South Dakota Kids Count and South Dakota Voices for Children, was at the Mitchell Congregational United Church of Christ. Cochran and Jennifer Kline, the executive director of South Dakota Voices for Children, offered insight into statistics on South Dakota's young people, and an overview of how the 2013 legislative session impacted children's issues.

Kline said the groups work together all year long.

"Our main goal is to keep South Dakota kids healthy, educated and safe," she said of South Dakota Voices for Children.

The Mitchell briefing was the third of 16 events South Dakota Voices for Children and other organizations will sponsor across the state to discuss the legislative session and reveal data on children. It drew a handful of people.

Sherry Stilley and Bonnie Williams, both of Mitchell, said they attended because they are "concerned citizens." Sue Burris, the church's interim pastor, sat in on the one-hour briefing.

Dan Guericke, who also attended, is the director of the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative in Platte. Guericke is also a member of the Voices for Children children's mental health advisory group.

Kline said they welcomed the interest, and said the fact that the location for the event in Mitchell was uncertain until recently may have kept attendance down. They drew about 30 people earlier in the day in Huron.

"We're trying to build an army of advocates across the state," she said.

South Dakota Kids Count is based at the University of South Dakota's Beacom School of Business. The organization is part of a network of projects supported and coordinated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Data and information are collected and published about the demographics, health, education, economic condition and safety of children.

Cochran said compiling data on South Dakota's children can reveal problems and the scope of them. It's useful to compare them with surrounding states, and policymakers use the data to make decisions.

She said it's clear that poverty is a major health risk, especially persistent and deep poverty. The poverty statistics are based on federal guidelines from 2011, which are based on family size and define poverty for a family of four with two kids as an income of $22,811 or less.

In South Dakota, 34 counties have at least 20 percent of children living in poverty. About 30 percent of the state's kids rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was known as food stamps. Another 2.8 percent rely on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

South Dakota ranked 17th among the 50 states in overall rankings according to the national

Legislative review

While Kids Count works to compile statistics, Voices for Children sends Kline and other staffers, as well as advisory board members, to Pierre to lobby during the legislative session.

It was another tough year for the group, which selected five bills to advocate for, she said. Of those, one passed.

About 500 bills were introduced this session, slightly lower than normal, Kline said. Voices Children tracked 81 bills and took positions on 22. Of those, five "rose to the top," she said.

Four involved teen driving safety. The other was about day care issues.

"I would say Voices for Children led the charge," she said on the teen driving bills.

South Dakota has consistently been atop the list in percentage of teen deaths, mostly from car crashes, Kline said. Realizing that, a Safe Teen Driving Task Force was formed in 2012, and state Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, a retired police chief, led it. The task force crafted four bills for this session.

"We really worked to get these passed," Kline said.

Senate Bill 105 would have required that first-time drivers get nine months of adult supervision before driving on their own. The current law is three months, and Kline said that often doesn't allow for winter weather driving preparation.

The bill passed in the Senate Transportation Committee and then in the full Senate, but it was defeated in the House Transportation Committee.

"We consider this a loss for South Dakota kids," Kline said. "We were hoping this would pass."

Senate Bill 107 would have limited the number of teen passengers in a vehicle driven by a driver with a restricted minor's permit to one, unless they were going to and from school or a school activity.

Kline said it's proven that several teens in a car can lead to crashes because the driver can get distracted. The bill had the exact same path as SB 105 and was stopped in the House Transportation Committee.

A bill to regulate driver's education in the state, SB 216, was also supported by Voices for Children.

"In South Dakota, driver's education is all over the board," Kline said.

Costs vary widely from district to district, some programs are organized by local school districts and others are not, and curriculums are not standardized, she said.

"Driver education teachers really supported this," Kline said. "No opponents spoke on it."

After passing in the Senate, a House committee added a $50,000 appropriation line, which required a two-thirds vote to pass it. Another amendment to remove the appropriation was defeated on the House floor when it ended in a 34-34 tie, thereby stopping the bill.

Kline said the $50,000 amendment was purposely added to defeat the bill, since there was no need for the money. A federal grant would have funded the program.

There was one bit of success when SB 106, which would prohibit beginning drivers from using wireless communication devices to prevent distracted driving, passed both houses of the Legislature. It still awaits the governor's signature or veto.

"We actually are pretty happy," Kline said of the 1-3 record on teen driving bills. "We consider it a win. We will bring the other three back and educate, lobby and advocate."

All four bills were created in the Senate Transportation Committee, which is chaired by state Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell.

Day care registration, other issues

The fifth bill Voices for Children supported called for lowering the number of kids in a day care that would require it to be registered with the state, from 13 to eight. Currently, a day care with 12 or fewer children is not regulated, nor must it file reports with the state.

"We're the only state in the country where you can do that," Kline said. "The next state down is seven."

In South Dakota, unregulated day cares need not have fire extinguishers, or windows that can be used as emergency exits. Opponents of the bill said they didn't want to create a hardship for small businesses, Kline said.

However, hunting lodges must be registered, and must meet those requirements, she said.

The bill passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee before it stalled on the Senate floor. The bill has been introduced for 13 sessions in a row, Kline said, and this is the first time it's made it to the floor of either the Senate or the House.

"It's a little baby step, but it's a gain," she said. "It got out of committee and was heard by more legislators, a broader audience."

Voices for Children also supported a bill to call for changes to bring about more joint physical custody of a child after a divorce. That was defeated by the full Senate. It also backed the Building South Dakota fund, which passed with broad bipartisan support. Included in that bill is a Housing Opportunity Fund, English language learning funding, and dollars for secondary schools and technical school programs.

Now that the session is over except for the last day, Monday, to consider vetoes and do other closing business, Voices for Children plans to host a mayoral summit to discuss afterschool programs for kids, she said.

"It's a city issue. We know afterschool hours are the biggest risk for kids," Kline said. "After school, before Mom and Dad get home, is when they are introduced to a lot of dangerous things."