This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in The Courier Journal. You can view it online here.
Spring in Kentucky is animated by certain rituals. As the first Saturday in May approaches each year, we become experts on horses. Students begin to wonder about final report card grades. And the governor and General Assembly are graded as well.
I recently was on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight” and heard my fellow panelists give tough grades to the 2014 General Assembly. Yet I asserted that, when it came to kids, Gov. Steve Beshear, Senate President Robert Stivers, House Speaker Greg Stumbo — as well as the other legislators in both chambers — merit an “A-plus.”
As an example: State leaders, along with community voices such as the Face It Movement led by Kosair Charities, made a real difference during the session. The child fatality review panel was funded, which will ensure a more rigorous examination of tragic child deaths from abuse in an effort to prevent future deaths. Reps. Addia Wuchner and Susan Westrom led a successful bipartisan effort for HB 157 to ensure that physicians know how to detect signs of abuse at the earliest possible moment. While those are just a couple of the wins for kids, perhaps a deeper way to think about kids and Frankfort is to draw lessons from the session.
For instance, kids won because of urgency. Child care assistance was slashed last year in a budget-saving measure. Kids and working parents lost, local businesses lost and local economies lost because of that decision. Rather than a tepid response to the devastating impact of the cuts, the governor and both chambers acted out of urgency. And the result is partially restored funding for child care as of July 1 and full restoration as of July 1, 2015.
If urgency animated some measures, persistence was the cornerstone of others.
There is no better example than Senate Bill 200, which represents fundamental reform for juvenile justice in the commonwealth. Rep. John Tilley and Sen. Whitney Westerfield, along with key legislative colleagues and such citizen leaders as Supreme Court Justice Mary C. Noble, won big this session. It was not an easy road.
The reform demanded that multiple stakeholders — judges, child welfare professionals, law enforcement, and educators — shift their approach to ensure that the best practices for kids were implemented. In most cases, the stakeholders stood tall for kids; in some unfortunate exceptions, they were concerned about adult convenience. However, the Westerfield/Tilley leadership prevailed, due in large part to their persistence in working diligently with stakeholders. In this new system, kids win because causal factors are addressed, public safety is enhanced and the commonwealth will save an estimated $24 million over five years.
There is also a special appeal around what I term “lightning in a bottle” wins.
Perhaps the best example relates to kinship families. Relatives taking care of kin is becoming a central part of the Kentucky family structure. The governor and General Assembly “got the kinship fever” and that is a good thing for Kentucky families. There is $1 million per year in new dollars to help families take on this extra responsibility. SB 176 — sponsored by Sen. Denise Harper Angel, with the help of Sen. Julie Denton and Rep. Larry Clark — ensures that relatives caring for kin can take that child to the doctor and enroll the child in school.
I can’t speak for everyone. But from where Kentucky Youth Advocates stands — as the independent voice for Kentucky’s kids —Speaker Stumbo and the House; President Stivers and the Senate; and the governor acted with urgency, practiced persistence and caught lightning in a bottle to make a difference for Kentucky’s youngest citizens.
In 2014, they are all on the Honor Roll for Kentucky kids.