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Common Ground and Common Good for Kentucky Kids

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Herald Leader.

Kentucky Youth Advocates recently released its 2018 KIDS COUNT County Data Book. This is, in many ways, the report card for Kentucky’s kids on a statewide, regional and county level.

It will surprise no one that the report is filled with both good news and challenges.

We have made some headway in reducing the percentage of children living in poverty with improved rates in 93 out of 120 counties. And yet, nearly one in four Kentucky kids still lives in poverty. Living in poverty equates to an annual income of $24,339 or less for a family of four.

We also continue to see the rate of children removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect rise, fueled by parents struggling with addiction. We have record numbers of children in foster care, and the number of children being raised by a relative outside of the foster-care system nearly doubled from 53,000 children in 2013-2015 to 96,000 children in 2016-2018.

These pressing challenges call for smart policies, innovative solutions, and focused attention on our priorities. And while that is daunting in one aspect, it is very achievable in another sense — because if there is one arena in which common sense, common ground and common good solutions abound, it is around kids.

Yes, ours is a divisive and polarized political environment, and I am going to hazard a wild guess that the looming governor’s race will not be a catalyst for harmony. And yet, kids seemingly do count with elected leaders who may not agree on much else.

Led by Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker David Osborne — as well as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle — our state leaders showed this to be true in 2018. We saw elected officials work to pass seminal and bipartisan child-welfare reform and make critical investments in the state budget to help children impacted by abuse and neglect.

As we approach that 2019 session, there are a myriad of lessons from the KIDS COUNT data that can and should inform kids’ champions in Frankfort. These include:

▪ The rural and urban divide may be a real element in the political algebra of winning elections, but it has little bearing on the state of the state’s kids. While the zip code in which a kid lives can impact their outcomes, the KIDS COUNT results also show many common themes, regardless of county. Be it in education or in health, in family economics or family structure, I hope legislators realize that common solutions for kids go beyond geography and that shared commonality should be a catalyst for broad-based support that transcends the conventional urban-versus-rural thinking.

▪ Any shot at solving the really daunting issues for kids in Kentucky is going to require a different way of doing business because these challenges don’t fit into nicely packaged and defined boxes. As an example, reforms to the criminal justice system and creative approaches to tackling the addiction epidemic go hand in hand with efforts to strengthen families so they can stay together and fewer children end up in foster and kinship care.

Likewise, the critical issue of school safety includes looking at building improvements and the appropriate role of law enforcement. But educators and parents alike will attest to the imperative role that relationships with students and school-based behavioral health services must play if we are ever to truly achieve a safe environment.

This kind of cross-sector collaboration — be that in how a piece of legislation is crafted or how dollars flow — calls for new ways of doing business in Frankfort and in every county seat across Kentucky.

▪ Big-picture reform works. One of the more encouraging trends in the KIDS COUNT book this year is that we’ve been able to safely reduce the use of harmful incarceration of youth while protecting public safety. That didn’t just happen.

These results can be traced back to the good work of Sen. Whitney Westerfield and Secretary John Tilley when he was serving as a Democratic state representative. Working across chambers and across political parties, those legislators and their colleagues crafted reforms, which transformed how we respond when kids get in trouble. Changing how we do business is hard work, but it pays off for young people and community safety.

For every elected leader and for every citizen, there is no better common ground, common sense, and common good agenda than working to improve the lives of Kentucky’s kids. Let’s do just that for our kids in 2019.

Dr. Terry Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

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