It is hard to believe there are only a couple of months left before we convene the 2021 Regular Session, but we are making progress on the issues we must tackle in January. Some of the challenges we face existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic but the pandemic also provides us with an unprecedented challenge. However, we continue to work to find solutions and this pandemic has allowed us to discuss the potential for improvements in multiple facets of the state’s system. It will enable us to be better prepared for other unexpected events Kentucky may face.

Many of us know the great joy as well as the incredible exhaustion that comes with being a parent. This is also true for the thousands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members who are raising a child because parents are unable to do so. During this week’s meeting, members of the Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee expressed concern over reported incidences of child abuse, child abuse court cases, and other services needed by families in the child welfare system since the pandemic.

According to data from the courts, 2,191 neglect and abuse cases were filed in March 2019, and 2,002 were filed in April 2019. Representatives compared those to the numbers to March and April 2020, where 1,476 and 903 cases were filed. A family court judge shared with lawmakers that, although COVID-19 safety protocols have changed how the court operates, courts did not close. He shared that the judicial centers continued to allow physical access for those seeking emergency orders for domestic violence, dating violence, and child welfare.

Also during this week’s meeting, a kinship caregiver shared information regarding a new informative booklet for kinship families. This is vital for many kinship caregivers because they may not know what to expect after taking custody of their loved ones. Foster parents and kinship caregivers need services to allow them to have a break, whether it’s to shop alone, see a movie or enjoy a much-needed date night with a spouse. Respite care is essential to these caregivers, but unfortunately, it is not offered to kinship caregivers.

This is one policy the task force plans to review when we gavel in for the session. COVID-19 has created significant barriers to respite care due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing. This is one policy the committee plans to review when we gavel in for the session. Another issue we continue to hear about affecting multiple citizens is little to no access to the Internet.

Many parents have voiced frustrations with internet issues around virtual learning and Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI). The same goes for foster parents, kinship, and fictive kin caregivers. They also share problems with inattentive or frustrated kids, a lack of understanding of parents’ expectations regarding schoolwork for kids, and technology glitches. Many parents and caregivers work at home and try to adjust to this new normal. Families who do not have consistent access to the Internet are being left behind. During the pandemic, it is a basic need for families. This is especially true for families in more rural areas.

The Tobacco Settlement Agreement Oversight Committee members heard a report on considering project funding from the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy. The Deputy Executive Director shared several updates on projects receiving tobacco settlement funds that will help build up Kentucky’s agriculture to further success and education across the state.

Committee members also heard from the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood and local childcare center owners to discuss initiatives taken to provide a strong foundation for Kentucky’s youngest children. In total, for FY 2021, the Division of Early Childhood Development received $25,439,100 in tobacco funds to provide high-quality early learning experiences that are critical components of K-12.

They face a challenge: the lack of a coordinated, comprehensive prenatal to age five system, which is a massive obstacle to advancing large-scale social change. Kentucky stands out among other states in the pandemic due to our comprehensive professional registry, integrated systems to support quality, monetary incentives for high quality and a balanced approach to Child Care and Development Fund mandated activities. At the beginning of March, nearly 28,000 children were being served in childcare assistance programs. Since the statewide closure, 94 centers have opened. More centers opened in 2020 than in 2019. There was a 40% loss since the shutdown, but Kentucky has preserved more centers than other states.

In the wake of the opioid epidemic and rise in substance use due to government shutdowns, the General Assembly made it a priority to enact policies that help people struggling with addiction during the past several years. The Substance Use Recovery Task Force continues building on this trend by examining pathways for reentry to society for substance involved individuals. This will be an essential issue that the General Assembly is likely to investigate during the 2021 Legislative Session because it affects many people across the Commonwealth, including our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. We must connect people struggling with substance use disorder to existing resources to help them successfully overcome addiction.

Some of the reentry barriers include high treatment costs, lack of transportation to and from appointments, and lack of access to long-term outpatient treatment options. We must break down these barriers so those struggling with addiction can receive gainful employment and become productive, healthy society members.

The Classifications of Workers in the Construction Industry Task Force also met this week to continue discussions on whether an independent contractor is considered an employee and can receive worker’s compensation, if needed, from the business they are contracting with. This issue is affecting many in this industry and even members that sit on this task force. Members of the task force voiced their concerns on liability this puts on business owners. It is likely a bill will be introduced during the 2021 Legislative Session to address the issue.

The Public Water and Wastewater System Infrastructure Task Force discussed the problems and possible remedies for our state water and infrastructure issues. Many local entities have struggled to comply with federal regulations, address maintenance issues for the last several decades, and COVID-19 has further exasperated these problems. The moratorium on utility cut-offs due to nonpayment has heightened the financial insecurity of already struggling entities. It is clear from the reports the task force heard that Kentucky must continue working to invest in our state infrastructure.

Everyone deserves safe and reliable drinking water. I am committed to working with my colleagues in the General Assembly and local officials to ensure we can adequately provide that for our residents.

As your representation here in Frankfort, I am always available to discuss your concerns, policies, or issues facing our community. I can be reached through the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181, and you can contact me via e-mail at Richard.Heath@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track of committee meetings and potential legislation through the Kentucky legislature’s website at legislature.ky.gov.