By Madelynn Coldiron
Kentucky schools will have more options for helping children with behavior and abuse issues, thanks to an expansion of benefits and services, and a push for a closer working relationship between educators and the state social services agency.
The outreach to schools began several years ago when the Department for Community Based Services began meeting with the state education department to improve child safety and outcomes for children in foster care, said Teresa James, head of the social services agency. The collaboration continued more recently in conversations among James and KSBA’s Teresa Combs and Shannon Stiglitz. Combs directs the association’s legal and administrative training, while Stiglitz heads governmental relations.
PHOTO: Teresa Combs, KSBA’s legal and administrative training director, gives a legal overview of child abuse reporting during a March 14 training in Lexington as state Department for Community Based Services Commissioner Teresa James listens.
“I really wanted to see us as an agency engage at a deeper level with the school system,” James said, “thinking in terms not of what we can’t share, but thinking more about what we can share and the value of being able to share information without breaching anyone’s confidentiality.”
She has drawn upon the resources of her department, as well involving as departments for Medicaid and Behavioral Health, Development and Intellectual Disabilities in the discussions. “These three entities touch the lives of a large portion of Kentucky families,” she noted.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act is requiring all health insurance policies and Medicaid to provide an in-patient and outpatient substance abuse treatment benefit; a large percentage of the state Health Benefit Exchange sign-ups have been eligible through Medicaid expansion. And the state has opened the field to new behavioral/mental health care providers, which will eventually give schools more community resources to which to refer students and their families. All this means schools soon will be able to refer children and their families to services in their communities that were not available to them before, said James, whose daughter is a fifth-grade public school teacher.
“We know that students can’t learn if they have serious problems at home and we need to work on the needs of the whole child, and social services is about that – it’s about the emotional well-being, the behavioral well-being as well as the education,” KSBA’s Combs said.
The collaboration between the social services and education communities, plus the additional venues for treatment, could not come at a better time for schools because of the raising of the dropout age to 18, she added.
“This focus that we’re both trying to take on with the behavioral health issues of students is going to be something that districts are going to need more and more resources to deal with,” Combs said. “Because you’re going to have older children in school, forced to come to school until 18, that may not want to be there, basically. We need to find ways to reach them and we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
As part of the partnership that has been forged, KSBA hosted a March 14 child protection training session in collaboration with the state Department for Community-Based Services that drew educators; family resource and youth services center staff; and school psychologists, social workers and counselors. Both sides – social services and educators – acknowledge the tension and misunderstandings in the past because each has different federal privacy laws they must follow when releasing information about children.
“We’re going to learn how to communicate better because in the end, our goals are the same. We meet with Teresa and Shannon on a quarterly basis; we meet with the department of education now on a quarterly basis,” James told the 100-plus attendees. “Why would we want to do that? Because no more are we going to let you silo up and no more are we going to let our agency silo up because when we both run this way our kids get caught in the middle. Their families get caught in the middle.”
In March, James implemented policy changes in her department as part of the outreach to schools. When investigating allegations of child abuse or neglect, her staff will now make “face-to-face” contact with personnel at the school attended by the child involved.
“We’re coming to talk to you. This is a major change,” James told the group. Her agency also will now notify schools within two working days when a student has been removed from the custody of their parent or guardian, and provide information about who is eligible to pick them up, or “interface” with them at school.
It will be beneficial for DCBS workers to meet with school-level staff, said Woodford County Middle School counselor Derby Akers, one of the attendees, who planned to communicate the message to her school’s faculty. She said she has seen an increased need for helping children through difficult situations.
“I do see that children are dealing with a lot more issues, whether it’s their parents are incarcerated, grandparents raising kids, I do see their early experiences certainly affect them,” Akers said. “ … and it does make it more difficult for them to be successful in school because of all the things they’re dealing with outside the school.”
Machelle Durham, family resource/youth services center coordinator in LaRue County Schools, said by working together, the education and social services sectors will be better able to “empower families” to take care of themselves. In the past, she said, the miscommunication worked against this.
“Because it’s like (James) said, there’s not enough time for DCBS to stay in that family’s lives, but the children continue to come to school. So we as school staff and FRYSC staff, can stay in that family’s life in a supportive manner, if we get a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of direction and a little bit of information about what was expected of them,” Durham said.
Besides reviewing the DCBS policy changes, the training session also covered the legalities of when and how to report child abuse; indicators of child abuse, neglect and dependency; and a sobering review of research showing the lifelong effect of adverse childhood experiences, such as physical and emotional abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse in the home, and separation from parent due to divorce or incarceration.