Fo­rum fo­cuses on child wel­fare is­sues

Of­fi­cials, ex­perts ad­dress poverty, health, ed­u­ca­tion

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Bob Keeler bkeeler@21st-cen­tu­ry­ @by­bob­keeler on Twit­ter

A round­table dis­cussion was held Tues­day on chil­dren’s health, poverty and ed­u­ca­tion in Mont­gomery County.

WHITPAIN >> It wasn’t un­til 2015 that the per­cent­age of Mont­gomery County chil­dren liv­ing in poverty dropped back down to be­low the 2008 pre-re­ces­sion level, Pub­lic Ci­ti­zens for Chil­dren & Youth re­ported in its Oc­to­ber 2016 “Left Out: The Sta­tus of Chil­dren in Mont­gomery County.”

“Even so, we have 7 per­cent of the kids in this county in poverty,” Donna Cooper, PCCY’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said at a “Round­table to Keep Montco Kids from Get­ting Left Out,” held Tues­day, Feb. 14, by PCCY and the Bucks-Mont Col­lab­o­ra­tive at Mont­gomery County Com­mu­nity Col­lege’s main cam­pus in Blue Bell.

Other speak­ers at the round­table, which had about 100 at­ten­dees, were Mont­gomery County com­mis­sion­ers’ Chair­woman Dr. Va­lerie Arkoosh, Nor­ris­town Fam­ily Cen­ter Di­rec­tor Julie O’Con­nor and VNA Foun­da­tion of Greater North Penn Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Joanne Kline.

The data for the PCCY re­port was from 2014, and some of the num­bers have im­proved, Arkoosh said — Mont­gomery County has among the low­est un­em­ploy­ment rates and high­est av­er­age wages in the state — but im­prove­ment is needed in other ar­eas, in­clud­ing more ac­cess to af­ford­able, high-qual­ity child care, re­duc­tions in in­fant mor­tal­ity rates and screen­ing and treat­ing chil­dren for lead paint ex­po­sure and poi­son­ing.

Fed­eral guide­lines call for chil­dren to be screened for lead by age 3, but three-quar­ters of Mont­gomery County chil­dren aren’t, Cooper said.

“When we don’t iden­tify young chil­dren who are po­ten­tially ex­posed to lead and po­ten­tially be­come poi­soned by lead, in­ter­vene, treat and re­me­di­ate their homes, then what we end up with is a child who’s likely to have prob­lems for the rest of their life,” Arkoosh said.

Those prob­lems can in­clude learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and ac­tions that re­sult in the per­son be­ing sent to jail, she said.

That makes more costs to the com­mu­nity, such as for spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, Cooper said.

“It’s mil­lions over the life­time be­cause we failed to do the tests when they were needed and to re­me­di­ate the home,” she said.

The 12,513 Mont­gomery County stu­dents clas­si­fied as liv­ing in poverty are enough to fill 500 class­rooms, Cooper said, and that doesn’t in­clude those who are in work­ing poor fam­i­lies.

About one-quar­ter of the stu­dents in the county re­ceive free or re­duced-price lunches at school, with many more el­i­gi­ble, but not tak­ing part, she said.

PCCY also looked at sta­tis­tics for neigh­bor­ing Bucks, Ch­ester, Delaware and Philadelphia coun­ties. Those coun­ties con­tinue to have higher rates of child poverty than the pre-re­ces­sion num­bers, Cooper said.

“Real es­tate and rent in Mont­gomery County un­for­tu­nately is dis­pro­por­tion­ately high,” Cooper said, “so you have the high­est share of fam­i­lies who have a rent bur­den that is above 30 per­cent.”

“Every one of your school districts has many more low­in­come chil­dren to­day than it did in 2008,” be­cause, while the econ­omy has re­bounded, wages have not in­creased enough to boost those at the bot­tom of the econ­omy, she said.

State fund­ing for school districts has re­mained flat or, when there have been in­creases, the money has been eaten up by in­creased pen­sion costs, she said.

“We’re down to about 36 per­cent state share of school fund­ing when it should be 50,” she said.

Three-quar­ters of the 21 school districts in Mont­gomery County have less money to spend on in­struc­tion to­day than in 2008, she said.

“I think pen­sions are re­ally im­por­tant. I’m not say­ing we should get rid of pen­sions, but we need to make sure we’re fund­ing them and we need to make sure we’re fund­ing the kids,” Cooper said. “Right now we’re only fund­ing the pen­sions, not the kids.”

Pub­lic pol­icy de­ci­sions that help those who are the most vul­ner­a­ble are good for ev­ery­one, Cooper said.

“Our kids are go­ing to school with kids who are strug­gling and when they do, our schools are spend­ing time re­me­di­at­ing them in­stead of ac­cel­er­at­ing every child. Our health care sys­tems are strug­gling to meet the needs of kids who have missed post­na­tal ap­point­ments, who had bad pre­na­tal care, who had lead ex­po­sure, in­stead of re­duc­ing health care costs,” Cooper said. “This is not some­thing that af­fects only poor chil­dren. Every one of these trends af­fects every one of us. When we solve them, all boats rise.”

O’Con­nor of­fered ad­vice for the other hu­man ser­vices providers in at­ten­dance, in­clud­ing the im­por­tance of lis­ten­ing and that each fam­ily and com­mu­nity has its own strengths that must be rec­og­nized.

“We know that it re­quires in­di­vid­u­ally-de­signed ser­vices, that no fam­ily or in­di­vid­ual fits with any par­tic­u­lar pro­gram,” she said.

Hu­man ser­vices work­ers and com­mu­nity mem­bers have to part­ner to­gether for ef­fec­tive change, she said.

“In or­der to think out­side the box, we need the col­lec­tive wis­dom in this room as well as what’s out­side this room,” O’Con­nor said.

Kline en­cour­aged those in at­ten­dance to take the next steps.

“You’ve made the first step to­day. You’re here,” she said. “You’re be­com­ing more in­formed. You’re be­com­ing more en­er­gized.”

Ad­vo­cacy, through groups such as The Col­lab­o­ra­tive Ad­vo­cacy Net­work (CAN), is one of the next steps, she said.

“You are the strong­est voice that we have here in Mont­gomery County be­cause you know the sto­ries. You know the face be­hind each one of those 12,513 chil­dren in poverty and you can speak to how that might have hap­pened,” Kline said, “and, more im­por­tantly, where we can go from here.”


Pub­lic Ci­ti­zens for Chil­dren & Youth Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Donna Cooper, left, speaks at the Feb. 14 “Round­table to Keep Montco Kids From Get­ting Left Out” at Mont­gomery County Com­mu­nity Col­lege’s main cam­pus in Blue Bell. Other speak­ers seated at the ta­ble are, from left, Mont­gomery County Com­mis­sion­ers’ Chair­woman Va­lerie Arkoosh, Nor­ris­town Fam­ily Cen­ter Di­rec­tor Julie O’Con­nor and VNA Foun­da­tion of Greater North Penn Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Joanne Kline.

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