To mark the release of our Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2018 County Data Book, we spent last week on the road, visiting five communities across the Commonwealth, including Louisville, Paducah, Glasgow, Manchester and Covington.  Our goals were two-fold. First, we wanted to introduce community leaders to the 100+ local data points available through the Kentucky KIDS COUNT Project that can give them a picture of how kids are faring in their counties. Secondly, we wanted to facilitate targeted conversations about how to impact one particular data point that is moving in the wrong direction – children in out-of-home care, or foster care.

We know that what gets measured gets changed, because we have witnessed it happen. This is a core value of KIDS COUNT. When state and community leaders rally around a specific data point and develop and implement a joint plan to address it, we see measurable progress for kids. Deep dives into data have led to graduated driver’s license laws and a subsequent decrease in teen deaths from auto collisions, simplified enrollment in KCHIP and a new record high coverage rate for children, and reforms in the youth justice system that have reduced the youth incarceration rate in half.

We witnessed numerous examples of this in the communities we visited. For example, over the past nine years Clay County Public Schools has set its sights on improving third grade reading proficiency.  With support and partnership from the Elgin Foundation, they adopted strategies like increasing reading instruction time, promoting pre-K literacy, and providing ongoing support for educators, and those efforts are paying off. Over the past 5 years elementary school reading proficiency in Clay County improved from 44.0% to 58.3%. Why does this matter? Because at 3rd grade, children transition from learning to read to reading to learn, and being proficient at reading is critical for future academic success.

We saw it in Campbell County, with impressive gains in kindergarten readiness at Dayton Independent Schools, increasing from 27.7% to 55.9% in a five year period. This progress didn’t happen by chance. It came from intentional partnership between the school district and early childhood providers in the area. This is huge for students at Dayton Independent because we know that children who enter school with strong readiness skills begin with and maintain an advantage over their entire academic career.

We can and must do more to keep families together safely in Kentucky.

The KIDS COUNT data show a troubling trend for children in out-of-home care. The commonwealth is at an all-time high with nearly 10,000 children in foster care, and increased rates in 93 of 120 counties over the past 5 years. Why does this matter? Simply put, being separated from their parents causes lasting trauma for children and we need to do everything we can to strengthen families and keep kids in their homes safely.

Last week, we partnered with some amazing local hosts who pulled together a wide swath of community leaders including superintendents, human service providers, first responders, mayors, state representatives, county judge-executives, child protection leaders and staff, family court judges, and many others who touch children’s lives, support families, and make a difference in their community. Our charge to them was this: how can the individuals in this room work together to safely reduce the number of children removed from their homes by 25% by 2025?

We learned more than can possibly be summarized in this blog post, but here are some common themes from those conversations that stuck with us:

  • Community leaders benefit from stepping back, taking time to network, and looking at the big picture. When asked to identify barriers to keeping families together, a Glasgow EMS responder told his fellow community members, “We are the greatest obstacles to these kids. We have got to work together better.” Many of those who participated in our community conversations were aware of the rising trend in foster care and are doing their best to cope individually, but this was the first time they had met as a group to determine how they could work together. A commonly identified next step for communities was to do better at sharing with each other what they were doing, whether through a resource guide, an app, or a provider conference.
  • Parents are a critical part of the equation. We heard frustration from community leaders that too often, parents lack the parenting skills and tools they need to raise their children safely. Our friends in Paducah are using the Strengthening Families framework to identify and build on protective factors that promote resiliency among parents who face so many uphill challenges. Other communities wanted to ensure that proven tools to support parents, like HANDS home visiting, are fully utilized and expanded to reach more families, and to explore ways to build parent mentoring programs.
  • The moment is now, and it takes action at all levels. In the words of a Northern Kentucky local host, “In twenty years from now, we will look back on this troubling trend and ask ourselves, did we do everything that we could to reverse it?” That will take increased resources from D.C. that are coming through the Family First Prevention Services Act. It will take changes in Frankfort through House Bill 1 and the Child Welfare Transformation underway at our Department for Community Based Services. And it will take dedication and partnership of community leaders who care about children and are committed to doing their part.

We are super grateful to our partners, Keith Mason and Sara Goscha at UnitedHealthcare Community & State whose support made this possible. UnitedHealthcare is also offering $10,000 in matching funds to each community we visited to support the targeted action plans they are developing – acting as seed money to leverage additional support. We thank DCBS Commissioner Eric Clark and his staff, as well as Chris and Alicia Johnson from the Governor’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives, who attended and took part in our conversations. We also thank our local hosts who convened the community partners, including:

  • Louisville – Pam Darnall, Family and Children’s Place
  • Paducah – La Donna Butler, Enrich Families and Lori Brown, Lotus
  • Glasgow – Mary Lee England, Boys and Girls Club of Glasgow-Barren County
  • Manchester – Kelly Hooker, Clay County Public Schools and Tracy Farmer and Tim Rogers, Elgin Foundation
  • Covington – Mike Hammons, Children, Inc.; Brighton Center, Horizon Community Funds of Northern Kentucky, Northern Kentucky Education Council, Saint Elizabeth Hospital Medical Center, United Way of Greater Cincinnati

Kids are counting on all of us to step up and work together to keep families together safely in Kentucky.