By Karen Kasler
A group of advocates working on education, health care, trauma prevention and early intervention for young children has launched a new campaign to encourage investing in programs earlier than ever before. It's aimed at the more than 545,000 kids three and younger who are living in Ohio – half in poverty.
“When you have a 12 year old, a 10 year old who is violent, that didn’t start when they were 12. That started when they were 2," said Misti Norman, owner of Heavenly Kids Center for Learning in Columbus. She’s one of several people – some elected officials, some doctors, some child care workers and parents – featured in a promotional video from the group Groundwork Ohio.
Its new campaign is founded on research that shows helping kids from birth to age three is more critical than previously thought.
Republican former state Sen. Shannon Jones leads Groundwork Ohio, and said health care for mothers and young kids, resources to stabilize families and kindergarten preparation could stave off costly problems later.
“If we follow the brain science and the research, we can invest more robustly and do it in a way that meets the needs, build that foundation and it leverages all the other investments,” Jones said.
Groundwork Ohio’s “Ready, Set, Soar” campaign includes pediatricians and medical associations, organizations advocating for low-income kids and those in foster care, groups working on infant mortality, preschool and educational development and researchers studying the effects of poverty and violence on children and community.
There’s been a lot of focus on Ohio’s infant mortality rate – one of the highest in the nation. Jones said making sure babies are born and stay healthy is among their issues, but helping kids deal with trauma and get higher quality education is too. For instance, she said scores on 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math tests are predictive of health and income levels when kids become adults.
The campaign suggests building on existing programs on infant mortality, lead abatement and newborn home visits from nurses. Melissa Wervey-Arnold is the CEO of the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she says they’re trying to reach people who need to hear about the impact of violence, trauma, education and nutrition on kids. And it might feel less invasive when it comes from community health workers.
“These are people who live in the community that they’re working in, so it’s someone familiar with them,” Wervey-Arnold said. “It’s not me going into inner city Cleveland and trying to tell people about access to healthy foods. I’ve never lived in inner city Cleveland I don’t know those struggles so I can’t do that same kind of work. So community health workers do that work.”
Lawmakers also have to be convinced that this is a good idea for the state and local officials to do – especially those who might think some of these are areas for parents and families, not government.
Jones said the science is very persuasive. She admitted prevention is expensive, but said the state is taking on huge losses already – they’re not just financial, but in human capital with multi-system youth, foster care and other elements of the child welfare system.
“Those are breakdowns in the communities that are costing public taxpayers lots of money. It’s not an 'either'/'or' proposition. It’s an 'and',” said Jones. “If we want to stop building bigger jails, if we want to stop building juvenile justice systems, if we want to stop recruiting more foster families and kinship families, then we have to invest more robustly where it matters the most – to prevent kids from being in crisis in the first place.”
The campaign also suggests adding things like expanded Medicaid access for families, allowing more families into publicly funded child care and preschool, and supporting better pay for early education workers – ideas that liberals embrace but concern conservatives who dominate the legislature.
But Jones said Gov. Mike DeWine and other lawmakers have expressed an interest in spending money on kids to lower the costs of helping people in crisis later, and that the state would get the biggest bang for its buck by investing in kids early on.