The final gavel sounded on the 2021 General Assembly this week! This year, the Governor and the Kentucky General Assembly were tasked with crafting a continuation budget, addressing the systemic injustices that impact our children and families of color, advancing policies to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and other policy priorities that would be good for the communities they represent and the Commonwealth. If we take a second to reflect, that’s a heavy lift in a short 30-day session.

There was good news for kids in this year’s legislative session—including its continuation one-year budget—as well as missed opportunities for policies and budget priorities that would help kids and families. Please note the list below doesn’t include all policies passed, but a high level review of kid-related policies.

Wins and missed opportunities for kids:

The General Assembly passed several pieces of legislation that have the potential to begin addressing disparities among children of color, such as:

  • Eliminating the mandatory transfer of youth ages 14 and older to adult court for situations involving a firearm (Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priority; originally SB 36 and received final passage through via SB 32, sponsored by Senator Whitney Westerfield).
  • Supporting the health and well-being of pregnant mothers who are incarcerated and their babies by ensuring postpartum services, access to substance use treatment and other community-based approaches and eliminating solitary confinement (Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priority; SB 84, known as the Dignity Bill 2.0, sponsored by Senator Julie Raque Adams).
  • Focusing incarceration on those who pose a risk or a threat to public safety by increasing the felony threshold for theft and fraud offenses to $1,000 (HB 126, sponsored by Representative Massey).
  • Requiring greater minority representation for superintendent screening committees (SB 77, co-sponsored by Senator Julie Raque Adams and Senator Gerald Neal).
  • Establishing a Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity that’s tasked with providing research driven policy proposals (SB 10, co-sponsored by Senator David Givens, Senator Whitney Westerfield, and Senate President Robert Stivers).
  • MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Establish a minimum age of adjudication so that children 12 years and under are connected to community-based services instead of sent to the court system.

The General Assembly has once again demonstrated their commitment to the state’s more vulnerable residents by supporting legislation that builds a stronger path toward healing for those profoundly affected by child abuse and neglect, through measure that:

  • Seek stronger accountability for perpetrators of child sexual abuse (Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priority; HB 472, sponsored by Representative Bechler) and tougher penalties for those who exploit children online, which is especially important considering the amount of time we know children  are spending online during the pandemic (HB 254, sponsored by Representative Lewis).
  • Ensure continual access to critical healing services by supporting the state’s children’s advocacy centers (HB 8, sponsored by Representative DuPlessis).
  • Provide clarity around requirements for background checks for those working or volunteering with young people at youth camps (SB 66, sponsored Senator Schickel).
  • Critical investments to protect children’s safety were sustained from previous years, including Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priorities such as:
    • The Relative Support Benefit for kinship caregivers stepping up to care for children who have been removed from their home for safety reasons;
    • The HANDS home-visiting program; and
    • A $20 million appropriation from the General Fund to support prevention services for families, like those included in the Family First Prevention Services Act.
  • MISSED OPPORTUNITY: While included in the Governor’s proposal, increased investments in the Department for Community Based Services’ social workers was not included in the General Assembly’s final budget. The DCBS workforce is on the frontlines and must be prioritized to promote the best outcomes for families.

The General Assembly took steps to ensure mental health remains at the forefront and improve mental health access to services and supports by passing measures that:

  • Set minimum telehealth standards, study the impact of the delivery system, and establish flexibilities that families used during the pandemic (HB 140, co-sponsored by Representative Deanna Frazier and Representative Kim Moser), and ensure the equal treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorder insurance supports (HB 50, sponsored by Representative Moser).
  • Allow youth age 16 and older experiencing homelessness to consent to outpatient mental health counseling (SB 21, sponsored by Senator Ralph Alvarado).
  • Within the state budget, the General Assembly delivered on a Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priority for kids and families by appropriating $300 million for the infrastructure of broadband services across the commonwealth to ensure every child has adequate access to online learning tools and telehealth services.
  • MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Although the General Assembly did sustain funds for school-based health and mental health services, there was a missed opportunity by not utilizing increased federal money coming to Kentucky as initial startup or seed investment for hiring or contracting school-based providers, especially as students return to in-person instruction with potentially more social-emotional health needs.

The General Assembly addressed gaps in accessible child care options to better serve kids, families, and local economies by:

  • Beginning to simplify the planning and zoning process for home-based family child care: providers can offer a regulated child care option for to up to six unrelated children while meeting state health and safety standards (Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priority; SB 148, sponsored by Senator Danny Carroll).
  • Enacting a $2 per child per day increase for the Child Care Assistance Program within the final state budget – a critical investment that allows parents to go to work knowing their child has access to safe, quality child care.
  • Investing in the early education outcomes of our youngest students with a $140 million appropriation to support full-day kindergarten next school year.

Two types of leaders make these wins for kids possible: legislative champions and, just as importantly, the advocates and organizations who work so hard on behalf of kids and families. Advocates, thank you for your emails or phone calls to legislators, social media posts, virtual legislative visits, attendance at Children’s Advocacy Week, and more. Your efforts were critical during this legislative session. As we look ahead to the possibilities in 2022, it will be more important than ever for advocates and leaders to continue to address the ongoing ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and tackle the systemic injustices that impact our Black and Brown communities so that every child in Kentucky can thrive.

We at Kentucky Youth Advocates are optimistic that, when the legislature resumes next year, legislators will again have Kentucky kids and their families at top of their priority lists. And we are certain that advocates like you will lend your voices to speak up for those kids and families.

Check out a recording of the March 31st Advocate Virtual Forum and respective Making Kids Count podcast episode, featuring state Senators Whitney Westfield and Reginald Thomas as they discuss the 2021 legislative session and look ahead to 2022, and as we dive into the kid-related wins and broad theme reflections of the 2021 session.

View the Bill Tracker to see the final status of 2021 Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priorities and other bills that are good for kids.