Can you believe that 2020 is almost over? Only 71 days until 2021, but who is counting! That means there is only 75 days until we convene for the 2021 Regular Session. My colleagues and I are working to make progress on important issues we must tackle in January. Some of the challenges we face existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic also provides us with an unprecedented challenge. We are working to find solutions and discussing the potential for improvements in multiple facets of the state’s system. By working together on what we’ve learned this year, we will be better prepared for other unexpected events Kentucky may face in the future.

During last week’s meeting, members of the Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee expressed concern over reported incidences of child abuse, child abuse court cases, and other services needed by families in the child welfare system since the pandemic. According to data from the courts, 2,191 neglect and abuse cases were filed in March 2019, and 2,002 were filed in April 2019. Representatives compared those to the numbers to March and April 2020, where 1,476 and 903 cases were filed. A family court judge shared with lawmakers that, although COVID-19 safety protocols have changed how the court operates, courts did not close. He shared that the judicial centers continued to allow physical access for those seeking emergency orders for domestic violence, dating violence, and child welfare.

Also during the meeting, a kinship caregiver shared information regarding a new informative booklet for kinship families. This is vital for many kinship caregivers because they may not know what to expect after taking custody of their loved ones. For those who haven’t heard of kinship care, that simply means that a child is in the care of a relative or close family friend. Foster parents and kinship caregivers need services to allow them to have a break, whether it’s to shop alone, see a movie or enjoy a much-needed date night with a spouse. Respite care is essential to these caregivers, but unfortunately, it is not offered to kinship caregivers. This is one policy the task force plans to review when we gavel in for the session in 2021. COVID-19 has created significant barriers to respite care due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing. This is one policy the committee plans to review when we gavel in for the session.

Another issue we continue to hear about affecting multiple citizens is little to no access to the Internet. Many parents have voiced frustrations with internet issues around virtual learning and Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI). The same goes for foster parents, kinship, and fictive kin caregivers. They also share problems with inattentive or frustrated kids, a lack of understanding of parents’ expectations regarding schoolwork for kids, and technology glitches. Many parents and caregivers work at home and are trying to adjust to this new normal. Families who do not have consistent access to the Internet are being left behind. During the pandemic, it is a basic need for families. This is especially true for families in more rural areas like the 18th District.

The Tobacco Settlement Agreement Oversight Committee members heard a report on considering project funding from the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy. The Deputy Executive Director shared several updates on projects receiving tobacco settlement funds that will help build up Kentucky’s agriculture to further success and education across the state. Committee members also heard from the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood and local childcare center owners to discuss initiatives taken to provide a strong foundation for Kentucky’s youngest children. In total, for FY 2021, the Division of Early Childhood Development received $25,439,100 in tobacco funds to provide high-quality early learning experiences that are critical components of K-12. They face a challenge: the lack of a coordinated, comprehensive prenatal to age five system, which is a massive obstacle to advancing large-scale social change. Kentucky stands out among other states in the pandemic due to our comprehensive professional registry, integrated systems to support quality, monetary incentives for high quality and a balanced approach to Child Care and Development Fund mandated activities. At the beginning of March, nearly 28,000 children were being served in childcare assistance programs. Since the statewide closure, 94 centers have opened. More centers opened in 2020 than in 2019. There was a 40% loss since the shutdown, but Kentucky has preserved more centers than other states.

In the wake of the opioid epidemic and rise in substance use due to government shutdowns, the General Assembly made it a priority to enact policies that help people struggling with addiction during the past several years. The Substance Use Recovery Task Force continues building on this trend by examining pathways for reentry to society for substance involved individuals. This will be an essential issue that the General Assembly is likely to investigate during the 2021 Legislative Session because it affects many people across the Commonwealth, including our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. We must connect people struggling with substance use disorder to existing resources to help them successfully overcome addiction. Some of the reentry barriers include high treatment costs, lack of transportation to and from appointments, and lack of access to long-term outpatient treatment options. We must break down these barriers so those struggling with addiction can receive gainful employment and become productive, healthy society members.

As your representation here in Frankfort, I am always available to discuss your concerns, policies, or issues facing our community. I can be reached through the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181, and you can contact me via e-mail at Samara.Heavrin@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track of committee meetings and potential legislation through the Kentucky legislature’s website at legislature.ky.gov.

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