Chili should be its own food group. You cannot find a better bowl than Judy Brooks makes – a year-round staple in our household! I think it’s because she sees chili as this culinary bit of alchemy in which matter is transformed by a magical combination of various elements. That list of elements is long – high quality ground beef, a potpourri of beans, garlic, onion, tomatoes, thyme, green pepper, red pepper, chili powder, cumin and about 37 other spices that I am not at liberty to divulge.
That chili formula – a staggering array of very disparate elements combining to create a masterpiece – is what we need when it comes to the issue of child neglect in Kentucky.
Each April, state and local leaders proclaim Child Abuse Prevention Month and community partners encourage the public to understand that everyone has a role in recognizing, reporting and preventing child abuse in the commonwealth.
And that kind of focus on abuse is an ethical imperative. After all, the latest federal Child Maltreatment Report reveals that Kentucky had 20,130 child victims of maltreatment in 2019, which should embarrass the commonwealth because we have the highest child victimization rate in the country for the third year in a row.
Yet, the truth is that there is a driver around incidences of maltreatment that is too rarely discussed – neglect. As you dig into the numbers, we see that 88% of cases of child maltreatment were the result of non-medical neglect, which could mean lack of adequate basic needs or supervision to the degree that the child's health and safety are threatened.
Milestone: U of L, Kosair Charities announce $50 million in funds for kids' health care
As absolutely vital as that emphasis on child abuse is, I am beginning to wonder, where is “neglect” in Child Abuse Prevention Month?
I get it, neglect does not grab the headlines or the heartstrings with the vivid and raw imagery of physical or sexual abuse. But the truth is, neglect is devastating; its impact pervasive. And its long-range effects more powerful than even research can imagine.
With this in mind, we must gather the civic conscience to tackle Kentucky’s multi-year maltreatment epidemic through a chili-like recipe that is more holistic, comprehensive and preventative!
As critical as the rapid and effective on-the-ground responses to neglect and abuse are, the real solution is to go upstream. As Dan Heath asserts in "Upstream," when we shift our energies upstream, we stop dealing with the symptoms of problems and we start fixing problems. And that approach is especially crucial as we only begin to see the data and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families who experienced unprecedented isolation and stress over the last year.
So, what would going upstream with a chili-like recipe of diverse ingredients around neglect look like?
One of those ingredients is a two-fold approach within families and within communities. It’s ensuring families really know how to meet the physical and emotional needs of their children, including the importance of attachment and asking for help, even before the child is born. It’s ensuring communities can help families meet basic needs, be that access to quality child care, food security or housing stability. It’s also access to supports to address family trauma, ranging from substance use treatment to mental health services to parenting skill development. And it’s addressing the high price of being poor. To be clear, poverty is NOT neglect, but poverty can exacerbate the stress and lack of stable supports and lead to poor outcomes for kids.
Another essential ingredient in the recipe is engagement by the philanthropic and business communities. That kind of leadership is exemplified by Kosair Charities through the Face It Movement, which convenes over 100 child-serving and other nonprofits across the state in efforts to prevent and end child maltreatment from community centers to the state Capitol.
A third essential element is YOU! Every Kentuckian can look at and leverage their niche to tackle neglect. That means pastors and pediatricians, educators and law enforcement, neighbors and coaches. It means YOU!
All of these elements are just as vital to combating neglect as that litany of ingredients are to Judy’s chili. But let’s face it – of all those ingredients, the key is that ground beef. And for we as a commonwealth genuinely to go upstream around neglect, the key is policy action by state and local leaders. That is the arena that can make robust family supports possible, in which prevention policies can emerge, and that can empower and resource so many community organizations to become energized players.
What would upstream look like in Frankfort? It’s architecting a common commitment and common-sense agenda that our leaders in the General Assembly, Gov. Andy Beshear and his administration, and Attorney General Daniel Cameron can share.
Child maltreatment must become a centerpiece focus of all pending opioid settlements.
Child maltreatment must be a centerpiece focus of the biennial state budget in 2022.
The governor and Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander must continue to chart a nationally acclaimed reform in child welfare. The Attorney General must continue to use his office like a fulcrum to convene law enforcement officials to creatively address addiction as a public health crisis, as well as continue to build capacity for prosecutors to hold perpetrators of maltreatment accountable. And Speaker of the House David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers must continue to rally their super majorities to make investments in proven strategies like a state refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, paid family leave and fundamental criminal justice reform; smart return on investment budget items like more frontline state social workers, deeper supports for child care, and resources for trauma-informed practices in our schools; and a bold discussion around child welfare and racial inequities through the newly created commission that came out of the 2021 General Assembly through Senate Bill 10.
All problems cannot be prevented all the time. But “upstream thinking” can make a difference. “With some forethought, we can prevent problems before they happen, and even when we can’t stop them entirely, we can often blunt their impact,” Heath writes.
And then he defines heroes as, “The people who are not satisfied with normal. People who clamor for better.”
Kentucky’s kids need leaders in Frankfort and neighbors next door and YOU to reject normal and clamor for better when it comes to how Kentucky treats its boys and girls. They need all of us to build that chili-like recipe to take this head on.