Teen pregnancies and high school dropout rates have plummeted in Orange County over the past decade, according to the latest report on conditions of children in the county, but increasing poverty and skyrocketing rates of housing insecurity, as well other issues like mental illness hospitalizations, show that many young people remain vulnerable.

“Conditions are improving in some areas, while in others, problems have deepened and enormous need remains,” states the report, which was released last week by a team of county officials and nonprofit groups.

In addition to the decreases in dropouts and teen births – both 46 percent – the report also showed a major drop in juvenile arrests and a decrease in preventable deaths of kids.

Meanwhile, housing insecurity has jumped over 700 percent, the hospitalization rate for serious mental illness has shot up by over 50 percent, and Latino youth are significantly disadvantaged in college readiness and have much higher rates of criminal prosecution.

(Click here to read the report and here for a short summary of the trends.)

The report “shows that we’re doing a better job of reaching out and making a difference in the at-risk community,” said county Supervisor Andrew Do, who chairs the Orange County Children’s Partnership, which put together the report.

“[But] the numbers are still quite startling, considering how prosperous Orange County is perceived,” Do said, referring especially to the central county First District, which he represents.

Do found it particularly noteworthy that half of public school students now qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches, up more than a quarter from a decade ago.

“That’s a lot,” he said, adding that almost 17 percent of Orange County children are now officially in poverty, which is based on a federal standard that doesn’t take into account the county’s much higher cost of living.

Housing costs have also shot up dramatically over the past decade, with the average rent going from about $14,600 per year to $20,600.  A full-time worker making California’s minimum wage would earn about $18,700 per year before taxes.

As for the jump in mental health hospitalizations, the data underscores the need for better early discovery and intervention efforts, according to Dele Ogunseitan, chair of the public health program at UC Irvine.

The report shows that the issue is “even more serious than we may have anticipated,” Ogunseitan said. “When it gets to the point of hospitalization, there are many places where we’ve dropped the ball.”

Ogunseitan also pointed to research showing that access to recreational places, like parks, supports psychological restoration. “How we invest in the kinds of places to keep people healthy mentally is very important,” he added.

Orange County also still has a “low capacity to house and treat” youth with serious emotional and mental health issues, the report said. “All too often, youth are sent out of state to receive treatment, when they would have improved outcomes if closer to family and home.”

Officials are working on creating a new live-in mental health treatment center for youth, but there’s an absence of data on “the magnitude of the need,” the report said.

As for recreational space, Do noted that the central part of the county is severely lacking in park space, which can have a big impact on both childhood obesity and mental health.

“When you don’t have open space, you don’t encourage a healthy lifestyle,” Do said, adding that he believes his own access to open space and team sports helped him rise from a working-class immigrant childhood to his career as an attorney.

The supervisor poses the question: “What chance would Andrew Do have” if he were growing up in central Orange County today?

Meanwhile, social services officials noted positive trends in the report, such as decreases in the number of confirmed child abuse allegations and children removed from homes.

The county Social Services Agency “continues to make efforts to decrease the time to reunification by better engaging with the families early on in the dependency system and creating a variety of services and supports that will address the families’ needs,” agency Director Mike Ryan said in a statement.

“Although further work needs to be done to return children home sooner, we are ensuring that families are ready when we do reunify children, so that very few children re-enter the system after returning home.”

(Click here to read Ryan’s full statement.)

The county Health Care Agency is also working to address the issues in the report, including working with schools to encourage walking and cycling to school and a operating a hotline for mental health services (855-OC-Links).

(Click here and here for the Health Care Agency’s responses to the report.)

Both Do and Ogunseitan agree that it’s extremely important for government leaders to understand how issues like poverty, mental health, recreational activity, and crime all relate to each other.

“The consequences are so interwoven and we [often] fail to see the fundamental cause. I mean we can put people in jail for drug possession,” but people are often doing drugs to self-medicate and possibly because of mental health issues, he noted.

Health also intersects with transportation, he added, with the growing movement to improve walking and cycling seen as an important way to reduce obesity and chronic diseases.

As for addressing gaps in the mental health system, Ogunseitan encouraged county officials to take a leadership role in bringing together researchers, policymakers, medical providers, and community members.

“This is a topic that is currently not owned by anyone and yet the data shows tremendous need,” he said. “Here there needs to be a voice…to show that we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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