“Bipartisan wins” in Frankfort seems like an oxymoron on the same level as “jumbo shrimp” and “bittersweet.” When reflecting on the recent legislative session, it would be easy to think of 2018 only as the year of placards and protests, accusations and apologies, parliamentary finagles and partisan politics. Yet, when it comes to Kentucky’s kids impacted by abuse or neglect, 2018 was marked by a number of significant bipartisan wins.
We saw groups discover common ground and find commonsense policy solutions to improve the lives of the commonwealth’s boys and girls, including Democrats and Republicans; House and Senate leadership and the Executive Branch; and long-standing children’s champions and new voices for youth. They fashioned an action agenda that will make positive differences immediately and in the long-term for many of our young people.
Protecting children from abuse and neglect was one issue that galvanized legislators to work together across party lines, and that commitment was evident throughout the months-long work of the House Working Group on Adoption that resulted in House Bill 1. Co-chairs Rep. David Meade and Rep. Joni Jenkins exemplified leadership for kids with an inclusive and thoughtful process to gather input. HB 1 represents major reform to a system that has too often let adult convenience drive decisions rather than what is best for a child. Under the leadership of Meade and Jenkins, HB 1 passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Relatedly, House Bill 527 will limit the number of times children in foster care must move schools, and it received unanimous support in both chambers. Too often children in foster care fall deeply behind because they move to a new school with each new foster care placement. The bill, championed by Rep. Steve Riley and Sen. Dan Seum, prioritizes children’s academic and social development by keeping them in their home school.
Another galvanizing bill was Senate Bill 137, which will allow a trusted adult to speak in court about abuse disclosed to them by a child, if the information was given under reliable circumstances. Sen. Whitney Westerfield championed this measure, and Rep. Joe Fischer carried the bill in the House where it passed unanimously with vocal support from many of his colleagues. Children are different than adults, and their fear or inability to testify should not prevent a judge from hearing about their experience.
While lots of discussion around Senate Bill 133 focused on the broader criminal justice debate, at its core, the measure was about protecting children. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Julie Raque Adams, ends the shackling of pregnant women who are incarcerated during labor, delivery, or postpartum, which is essential to ensuring a healthy and safe birth. Additionally, the bill included a critical provision to release pregnant women to substance abuse treatment, rather than keeping the woman in jail with unsupervised detox, which can jeopardize the baby’s health. The power of that provision in helping the baby get a strong start in life cannot be overstated. Especially while Kentucky and many other states face a major challenge with the opioid crisis, communities need more of these smart, effective policies that get to the core of the problem.
And these bills didn’t just eek by. Kids won in a landslide. On the bills noted, the collective House vote was 306-1 and Senate vote was 137-13. Put the numbers together and these bills for kids won 97 percent of the votes.
The state budget reiterates the legislature’s commitment to vulnerable children with the strong investments made to shore up the child welfare system. Most notably, funding was included to begin reopening the Kinship Care Program, which stopped providing financial assistance to kin raising children in 2013. Funding was also included to address high caseloads, recruitment, retention, and technology for social workers impacting their ability to work on children’s cases in a timely and effective way. Other parts of the budget remain ambiguous as to what the impact will be, such as the increase in sales tax on select services or the inclusion of a tobacco tax increase at just fifty cents when research indicates that a dollar would yield the best health outcomes for kids and pregnant mothers. But, to be sure, those investments in child welfare will have a profound impact on kids and families across the commonwealth.
It’s easy to talk about Frankfort with a cynical eye. And we each have a right to dissent when such is justified. In the midst of the drama acknowledged by all, we can also dig deeper and look at the results for kids. We can celebrate the many wins for Kentucky children – and “bipartisan wins” at that!
Dr. Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
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