Kids’ Issues and the Capitol

    Four Reasons the General Assembly Mattered for Children

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    You might not think forty-six days would provide enough time to make significant changes in Virginia’s laws that affect children, but think again. The state’s 140 legislators plowed through more than 3,000 bills and made changes to the state’s budget during their brief stay in Richmond in January and February. Here’s a look at four key areas that affect kids and families.

    1. Funding for children’s programs

    Heading into 2017, Virginia faced a $1.26 millon budget shortfall, so child advocates were particularly concerned about preserving gains made last year that benefit children in a variety of settings. Fortunately, legislators continued to fund these major initiatives, including Fostering Futures, the program that provides support to 18-year-olds without permanent family connections who age out of the foster care system. The legislature also maintained large, new investments in home-visiting programs that benefit at-risk young families, including some first-time moms, through programs such as Family Lifeline in Richmond and Petersburg. Funding that goes for children’s crisis response services was also preserved. In our area, that funding helps support the Crisis Stabilization Unit at St. Joseph’s Villa, which serves children and youth experiencing a mental health crisis, regardless of their insurance status. The General Assembly also managed to add $34 million in lottery proceeds to the public schools to spend on locally determined priorities.

    2. Faster access to mental health care

    Improving Virginia’s mental health system was a major focus during session. Though no new funding was approved specifically for children’s services, legislators created a new requirement for same-day access to treatment for all individuals at the public mental health agencies, known as community services boards (CSBs).

    Starting July 1, these agencies will begin implementing same-day access so that adults and children who seek services from them will be assessed in a face-to-face appointment that day, and linked to follow-up services quickly. Currently, people seeking treatment often face delays in getting an appointment, or get placed on waiting lists because the CSBs lack the capacity to see people immediately. Along with the new mandate, the legislature appropriated $7.5 million in funding to help CSBs begin this approach, but the state acknowledges it will take time for all CSBs to be able to do so.

    A handful of CSBs in the state, including the one in Chesterfield, have already implemented this model. According to Doug Bilski, program manager of Chesterfield CSBs’ Child and Adolescent Services Team, the change is a big improvement for kids. “By restructuring our agency resources and staff, we have been able to implement the same-day access process – which means that families can arrive without a scheduled appointment for their initial assessment and be seen that same day by one of our licensed mental health and substance abuse therapists. By doing this, we’ve completely eliminated all those waiting lists for our services!” says Bilski.

    3. Help for students with dyslexia

    Dyslexia advocates were busy again this year (see RFM’s September 2016 Family Advocate), working to improve reading instruction for children in public schools who learn differently. Bills were passed that require local school boards to ensure that at least one of their elementary school reading specialists has specific training in identifying dyslexia and related conditions and in providing appropriate methods of reading instruction for these children.

    Often, kids with dyslexia have trouble learning to read with the typical instruction provided in most classrooms. “However, they grasp on to the explicit rules of language and learn to read when taught with a ‘Structured Language’ approach that focuses on phonics. That’s where a school district’s dyslexia specialist comes in,” according to parent advocate Jenna Hynes, who says the specialists guide teachers and parents to provide the most effective type of instruction.

    This expertise will be helpful in light of data showing that nearly one in four children in Virginia did not pass the third-grade reading SOL test last year, meaning they did not have the necessary literacy skills to keep up with the curriculum going forward. Up to third grade, children are learning to read; starting in third grade, children need to be proficient readers in order to learn.

    4. Failure of school suspension bills

    To slow down the school to prison pipeline, which leads to a disproportionate number of children becoming involved in the juvenile justice system for relatively minor school discipline issues, some legislators tried unsuccessfully to reform the state’s school suspension policies. Two bills attempted to reduce the length of long-term, out-of-school suspensions, which currently range from eleven to 364 days, to eleven to forty-five days, citing research showing that students given long suspensions become further disengaged from school and are more likely to drop out. After being amended to allow for suspensions of sixty or even ninety days, the bills ultimately failed.

    Recognizing that 16,000 children statewide in pre-k to third grade were suspended in the 2014-15 school year, some legislators also sought to end or significantly reduce the length of suspensions for the youngest students. These measures also failed, despite having bipartisan support. The problem of school suspensions is particularly relevant in the Richmond region, where more than 2,500 elementary school-aged children were suspended last school year in Chesterfield, Henrico, and Richmond City combined. Advocates plan to continue educating lawmakers about this issue in the coming year.

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    Margaret Nimmo Holland
    Margaret Nimmo Holland is a mom and the executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization focused on informing lawmakers what kids need, based on data about child well-being and research showing what works to improve their lives.