This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on December 9, 2016.
I live in Lexington, but like most all native Eastern Kentuckians, the answer to the question, “Where are you from?” is that I was born and raised in a place called Stinking Creek in Knox County. That used to be embarrassing, but now I am proud of it.
A few years ago, my father was told that his death was imminent and he asked me to stay with him and help coordinate his end-of-life care. Doing so allowed me to reconnect with lots of kinfolks, either through dinner invitations or visits to my dad. Two visitors were relatives of mine who were teachers. I took the opportunity to ask them about the kids they taught. They immediately stated that drug abuse was destroying many of the families of their students. Then they told me something I will always remember.
To be sure, the most current statistics about the mountain counties and my home county are distressing. According to KIDS COUNT, Knox County ranks 113th in child well-being and almost 50 percent of all the kids live in poverty. One hundred percent of children live in high poverty areas. We know that reading proficiency is necessary for future learning but 56 percent of the fourth graders in my home county are not proficient.
I am not a sheltered elitist. I have seen families living in tar paper shacks. When I coordinated programs for children with disabilities in an eleven county area, I saw kids whose teeth were rotted to their jawline by drinking sugary drinks from a bottle. I met kids who had never had warmed food and were frightened of eating it. I worked with kids who had never used an indoor bathroom and feared being punished for using it.
But what my relatives told me that day shocked me. They shared that as each school day was winding down, a sort of triage was held by staff to determine where children were to be sent. Some parents had been incarcerated, some were due for release from jail, others were part of hearings to determine if they would regain custody of their children. There were kids going to school who literally did not know if they would be with their parents, relatives or in foster care at the end of the day.
Kentucky Youth Advocates’ KIDS COUNT report refers to “place” in terms of the advantages and disadvantages of where you live, but I tried to imagine “place” as literally not knowing where you are going to sleep that night. This is an uncomfortable truth that my fellow Knox Countians might be angry with me for sharing, but this is the place where I grew up. Things are no better for lots of our children than when I was a child. We, as Kentuckians, must do better by them.
We know some ways that we can help struggling kids and their families. For instance, a state refundable earned income tax credit would help working parents keep more of their hard-earned pay and increase financial stability. Increased support for grandparents and relatives raising children, known as Kinship Care, would support family stability. And workforce development efforts to help increase the skills and education levels of low-income parents could align with the reality that parents also need affordable child care, home visiting and other supports to juggle the stress of school, work and family.
In some ways, we are doing an incrementally better job. But until we are in agreement that making Kentucky a truly good place for them, regardless of race, place or income is our top priority, I will be haunted by the thought of a first-grader crying as he or she leaves school on the bus.
Bill Stewart worked for 17 years as an advocate for children and adults with disabilities. He is a board member of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Read the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book here.
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