Advocates: Increases in infant health, reductions in youth prisons should be budget priorities

By: - May 14, 2021 12:30 am

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Advocates are looking to the Ohio Senate to prioritize child welfare issues, such as infant health, child care and reducing youth incarceration as they work toward passage of the state operating budget.

Members of child welfare organizations across the state are encouraged by continued investments in local support programs addressing poverty and child care that are currently in the budget, but say more money could be directed to the issues.

“Our budget is a moral document, it is a direct reflection of what we prioritize as a state,” said Tracy Najera, executive director of the Children’s Defense of Ohio, in a recent meeting of the Ohio Children’s Budget Coalition.

Kelsey Hopkins, policy associate for early learning and child health care organization Groundwork Ohio, said the state can always do better when it comes to infant and maternal mortality.

“Our state’s persistent infant and maternal mortality crises are a tragedy for families and communities,” Hopkins said.

Pregnancy-related deaths in the state, particularly among Black women, have consistently been an issue, with 57% of pregnancy-related deaths in the state considered preventable, according to Hopkins.

Deaths of pregnant Black women represented 34% of all deaths in pregnancy, while only representing 17% of births, and Black babies are more than 2.5 times more likely to die before their first birthday compared with white babies, she said.

To help address the issue even more, Groundwork is promoting increased investments in Ohio’s Help Me Grow program, which helps women with in-home and other pregnancy-related care. Hopkins said an additional $1.9 million in fiscal year 2023 would help another 1,000 women and children in the biennium.

With a federal match possible from the latest COVID-19 stimulus package, Hopkins said Medicaid increases for postpartum coverage are also possible, which could help thousands more women if the Medicaid eligibility for postpartum care is expanded from the current 60 days to 12 months.

That coverage can be used for services including case management, substance use disorder treatment and mental health screenings before and after childbirth.

“By having continuity of health care, postpartum women are afforded the flexibility to focus on family, maintain their health so they can make plans to return to work or school and help save Ohio money from costly health interventions down the road,” Hopkins said.

One of the places where the state budget could divert money to support child care programs is youth incarceration, which members of the children’s budget coalition said only serves as a detriment to children.

In an earlier meeting of the budget group, Kenza Kamal of the Juvenile Justice Coalition said on average, it costs the state $185,000 to incarcerate one child for one year.

Budget allocations for local programs to support community interventions such as social workers and mental health programs total $12 million for each year of the upcoming two-year budget cycle, and the state’s three youth prisons are set to receive between $90 million and $92 million each fiscal year.

“So it’s not that we don’t have the money for effective programs to heal young people rather than inflicting further harm on them, it’s that the dollars are tied up in the wrong things,” Kamal said.

While the budget brings in significantly more money for youth incarceration than for community programs, the population of those youth prison facilities has been decreasing.

In 2005, the population of youth prisons totaled more than 1,600, but in 2020, the count was about 400, Kamal said, citing data from the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

“We see the damage of our current spending priorities every day as young people become stuck in the cycle of poverty, housing insecurity and financial instability, which can also maintain racial inequality across generations,” Kamal said.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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