OHIO VALLEY — The COVID-19 crisis has driven the formation of an unprecedented coalition of state and regional leaders to advocate for the health and well-being of children in Southeast Ohio, the state’s poorest region where children are also in the greatest need.
The Appalachian Children Coalition is a first-of-its-kind regional partnership of Educational Service Centers (ESC); Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health (ADAMH) Boards; and K-12 school districts across 24 Southeast Ohio counties. The Coalition counts as members, the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools, seven ESCs and four ADAMH boards, in total representing the significant majority of counties, children and their families in the region.
The Coalition will raise public awareness around the special challenges facing children from Southeast Ohio, who suffer from behavioral and mental health disorders at much higher rates than children elsewhere in the state. The Coalition will advocate for greater public federal and state support, and private medical and philanthropic investment directly inside and outside the classroom to improve the well-being of the region’s kids.
The Coalition’s initial focus will be on three areas:
● Lack of internet access, and the negative impact this has on a majority of kids across Southeast Ohio. Telemedicine and distance learning can help ameliorate the injustices that proliferate throughout the region. They will help us better educate our kids,and provide access to mental health professionals through telemedicine and wellness check options. The consequences of our failure to address the last mile of coverage have been made manifest by COVID. The chasm that already existed between rural and metropolitan communities has widened because of the former’s lack of access to this fundamental technology. The broadband divide is no longer tolerable, and state and federal policy makers must act now to rectify this wrong.
● The shortage of child behavioral health specialists. Most schools lack funds to hire certified behavioral health specialists, and as a consequence, they are unable to adequately meet the needs of children suffering from moderate to severe behavioral health conditions. Many children with developmental disabilities have, in recent years, been moved away from developmental disability facilities, and into public schools. Moreover, many children across the region have been impacted by the opioid crisis, and are living in dysfunctional homes, or resorting to “couch surfing” — a euphemism for teen homelessness, where a displaced minor rotates time spent with the families of friends or relatives. Local schools lack the funding necessary to hire behavioral health specialists qualified to deal with students with special needs. Children in need of professional help often go without, and the entire classroom is compromised. State and federal policymakers must allocate the resources necessary for rural, Appalachian schools to hire and retain these vital specialists. They must also do more to incentivize the education, recruitment and placement of behavioral health specialists in Southeast Ohio.
● The lack of in-patient, acute care facilities. The number of beds available for children in need of inpatient, residential mental health treatment is shockingly low. Most agencies will not even bother trying to place a child in a bed unless the situation is life threatening. And even then, the child is typically placed hundreds of miles away from home, severely compromising treatment and reintegration of the child. This region is in desperate need for more beds and corresponding funding that will allow kids to receive the care and treatment they need while staying close to home.
Advisors include former Ohio Govs. Bob Taft and Ted Strickland, along with former Republican cabinet officials Rick Hodges and Orman Hall, and Eastern Elementary Principal (and mother of quarterback Joe Burrow) Robin Burrow. Past and current leaders from the Ohio Legislature, Battelle for Kids, Ohio University, Rural Action, Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development, and regional child advocacy networks are also advisors.
“As former Governors, we know well the challenges faced by southeastern Ohio children and families. Since we left office, though, those problems have become significantly more severe. In some Appalachian school districts, a majority of children do not live with their parents. Some mental health providers are at risk of closure, and most ESCs and school districts lack the resources to hire child behavioral health experts available at urban schools. The cyclical poverty, a loss of blue collar jobs, the Great Recession, opioids, crystal meth and now COVID-19 have ravaged the families of Appalachia, and disadvantaged so many kids — through no fault of their own,” stated Taft and Strickland in a joint statement about the Coalition’s launch. “We see an acute, and historic, need for advocacy on behalf of kids across these 24 Southeast Ohio counties. We applaud the investments Gov. DeWine and Speaker Householder made in child wellness over the past two years. And we look forward to working with them and this Coalition of the region’s educational, mental health, and social leaders to achieve even greater investment in the lives of Appalachian Ohio’s kids.”
Burrow also joined the Coalition as an advisor. She stressed her many years spent as an educator in Southeast Ohio, and witnessing the unmet needs of the region’s kids, as her reason for signing on.
“As a principal in Southeast Ohio, I have always fought for my students to have the support they need to succeed in and out of the classroom,” said Burrow. “I have seen, for years, an under investment in the behavioral health needs of kids in our schools and in our communities, and the problems that under investment creates. I am proud to join a group of educators and mental health professionals as they work to increase the number of children’s health experts and facilities that are available to help the kids and hardworking families of our beautiful region.”
Coalition member agencies include, Gallia-Jackson-Meigs ADAMH Board (Executive Director Robin Harris); Paint Valley ADAMH Board (Executive Director Penny Dehner); Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Coshocton, Guernsey, Morgan,Muskingum, Noble and Perry Counties (Executive Director Misty Cromwell); Adams-Lawrence-Scioto ADAMH Board (Executive Director Sue Shultz); Ross-Pike Educational Service Center (Supt. Todd Burkitt); East Central Ohio Educational Service Center (Supt. Randy Lucas); Muskingum Valley Educational Service Center (Supt. Lori Lowe); Lawrence County Educational Service Center (Supt. Jeff Saunders); South Central Ohio Educational Service Center (Supt. Sandy Mers); Athens-Meigs Educational Service Center (Supt. Heather Wolfe); Ohio Valley Educational Service Center (Supt. Andy Brooks); and Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools (Executive Director Dick Murray).
Coalition advisors are Bob Taft, 67th Governor of Ohio and lifelong children’s advocate; Ted Strickland, 68th Governor of Ohio, Appalachian Ohio Congressman and PH.D.psychologist; Debbie Phillips, CEO, Rural Action, and former Ohio Representative; Rick Hodges, Former Director, Ohio Department of Health; Robin Burrow, Principal, Eastern Elementary School in Meigs County, and mother of JoeBurrow; Jenny Stotts, Executive Director, Southeast Ohio CASA/GAL; Orman Hall, Former Director, Ohio Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team, and OhioDepartment of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services; Megan Riddlebarger, Executive Director, Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development; Tracy Najera, Executive Director, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio; Fred Deel, Former Director, Governor’s Office of Appalachia; Tom Davis, Former Interim Vice President and Dean, Ohio University, and President,Ohio Counseling Association; Jim Mahoney, Former Executive Director, Battelle for Kids; and Dick Murray, Executive Director of Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools.
The Coalition includes K-12 education and mental health providers that serve 24 counties, all of which fall in the footprint of Appalachian Ohio. According to the U.S. Census data, this includes about 207,000 in those counties, and at least 135,000 children enrolled in 96 school districts across those counties, which include: Highland; Adams; Scioto; Pike; Ross; Lawrence; Gallia; Vinton; Hocking; Jackson; Athens; Meigs; Perry; Morgan; Washington; Noble; Muskingum; Monroe; Guernsey; Coshocton; Harrison; Carroll; Tuscarawas; and Belmont counties.
Learn more at AppalachianChildrenCoalition.org.
Information provided by Sunday Creek Horizons on behalf of the Appalachian Children Coalition.