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Coalition Convenes 10th Annual Children’s Issues Forum

Awards, sobering statistics about County’s children highlight Coalition’s 10th Anniversary Children’s Issues Forum

There was good news and bad for children’s advocates at the Coalition’s 10th Annual Children’s Issues Forum Wednesday, May 16 at The Village Inn in Narragansett.

On the minus side, during a panel discussion, South Kingstown Town Manager Steve Alfred and Exeter Town Council President Arlene Hicks said they expect state and federal funding for social services to the County’s cities and towns to remain flat or even decrease.

And Coalition presenter Lori Duffy reported that, despite a 12% drop in the County’s child population between 2000 and 2010, more children than ever are receiving food stamps, living with single or no parents, and requiring medical assistance.

But there was positive news, too. The Coalition named five award winners, keynote speaker Julia Steiny introduced a positive way to deal with misbehaving youth, and after ten years of Coalition programs and advocacy, noted Coordinator Susan Orban, “the region is taking children’s issues seriously”.

Olympic Physical Therapy wins Champion for Children award

State Reps. Teresa Tanzi (Narragansett/S. Kingstown) and Donna Walsh (Charlestown, New Shoreham, S. Kingstown, Westerly) brought Rhode Island House citations to honor this year’s winners of the Coalition’s Champion for Children and Champion for Community Change awards, given to Olympic Physical Therapy and Andrea Martin, respectively.

“Olympic Physical Therapy truly deserves to be called a ‘champion’,” said the Coalition’s Heidi Reardon in announcing the Champion for Children award, which is chosen from public nominations. “This community-based, locally-owned small business offers dozens of free programs and services to keep children fit and active, and free of obesity, depression, and anxiety.” She said the group’s staff has a Healthy Kids Day at the YMCA, Praise and Play for 200 children at a local church, exercise night for local cub scouts to earn their merit badge, peewee soccer conditioning, concussion lectures for the Narragansett Little League, and more, all for free. On behalf of his staff, physical therapists, and aides, Bert Reid accepted the award and citations from both the State House and the U.S. Senate, courtesy of Sen. Jack Reed.

Retired special education teacher Andréa Martin of Richmond received the annual Champion for Community Change award, given to a member who exemplifies remarkable service. “Andréa helped the Coalition organize our first focus group with child care providers in 2003 and has co-led the Early Care and Education Work Group ever since,” noted Co-Chair Linda Cardillo. Martin designed and has run the ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ emotional literacy project for five years. Most recently, she is developing anti-bullying lesson plans for use in middle school classrooms.

Three Community Partnership Awards

The Coalition recognized three organizations this year for their long-term partnerships that have benefited area children.

Cardillo presented the first to the Rhode Island Department of Health and Mia Patriarcha O’Flaherty. “The Department, and Mia in particular, have provided much-needed data, analysis, community-building expertise, contacts, and resources to support the Coalition’s advocacy in Washington County,” Cardillo pointed out. “Mia helped us put together our first grant application that launched our community planning work around children’s health and well being. Her insight and expertise about the nuts and bolts of grassroots community organizing have been integral to our success.”

The Coalition also gave an award to the Richmond Grange which, for three years, has dedicated one of its famous roast beef dinner evening fundraisers to the Coalition. “We are eternally grateful to be one of the recipients of their hard work and goodwill,” Cardillo said. Haven Nelson and Jack and Patty Cottrell, all of West Kingston, accepted the award on behalf of the Grange.

The Coalition also gave an award to its longtime fiscal sponsor and “home”: VNS Home Health Services in Narragansett. “The Coalition owes much of its existence to the foresight and commitment of the staff and Board who for the past 10 years have provided a fiscal and administrative home for us,” Cardillo explained. “We simply wouldn’t be here without them. And they have done all this with little fanfare or desire for recognition.” VNS President & CEO Mary Lou Rhodes and Board Chair Meg Sisco accepted the award.

Keynoter Steiny encourages new “consciousness” towards discipline

Known for 15 years of provocative columns in the Providence Journal, Julia Steiny didn’t disappoint the crowd of more than 100 at the breakfast. With little preamble, she encouraged her audience to change their approach in dealing with children from punishment to what she termed “restoration”.

“Right now, we think in terms of retribution, or punishment,” she said. “Punishment is about external control and coercing behavior. I could show you all the data, but we don’t have time. All the studies agree: punishment doesn’t work! “Restoration, on the other hand, comes from thinking that ‘you’re one of us; how do we bring you back?’ ‘Discipline’ means to teach, and works to civilize behavior for the benefit of the community.” Putting it in direct terms, Steiny quoted a mom in Central Falls where she is working with Family Services of Rhode Island, who said, “All I knew was hitting and yelling. I didn’t know there was anything else.” It’s changing your consciousness, Steiny concluded: “It’s a new way of life.”

Statistics still grim for County’s children

With a backdrop that the child population under age 18 dropped by 12%, or 3,391, in Washington County between 2000 and 2010, the key indicators for their wellbeing did not improve. In many cases, the situations worsened.

Key findings, as announced at the Forum by the Coalition’s Lori Duffy of N. Kingstown:

The child population under age 18 dropped in every one of the nine Washington County cities and towns between 2000 and 2010, with the highest decreases in Narragansett (20%) and Exeter (16%)
One in four children in Washington County lives in a single parent household; it was one in five in 2000
Despite the drop in population, nearly 350 more children were enrolled in SNAP (food stamps) in 2011 (3,457) than the previous year (3,114), compared to 1,421 in 2001
Children receiving free/reduced school meals dropped 9% from 2010 to 2011 (3,899 to 3,536)
296 homeless students were enrolled in Washington County public schools in the 2010-11 school year, down 40 from 336, but still higher than the 257 in 2008-2009. The number had been growing steadily all decade
More children than ever in Washington County require some kind of medical assistance: Rite Care/Rite Share, Rite Works, SSI, adoption subsidies, foster care, etc. In 2001, 4,639 children received assistance; in 2010 the number was 5,849; in 2011, the number rose to 6,034
Teens ages 15-19 gave birth to 273 babies between 2006-2010. The town with the most number of births was Westerly, with 72, but the highest rate of teen births was Richmond, with 26 births per 1000
224 Washington County children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2011; half of them were in North Kingstown and Westerly; none of them were on Block Island
A remarkably consistent third of all the high school students in the County admit to have used marijuana or alcohol.

Panel warns of longer wait for recovery

The Forum also featured a panel of local officials with advice for children’s advocates. Scott Mueller, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Rhode Island College, facilitated the conversation with Arlene B. Hicks, Exeter Town Council President; Westerly Schools Superintendent Roy M. Seitsinger, Jr.; and South Kingstown Town Manager Stephen A. Alfred.

Alfred warned that advocates should expect flat budgets, at best.

“Washington County is actually in better condition than other areas of the state. I think we can assume money will be going to the urbanized areas. We may even see reductions in aid,” he predicted.

Seitsinger agreed, “It’s going to be a few more years for recovery.”

Hicks, who pointed out that Exeter’s entire non-school budget of approximately $2 million was the same as the Newport Public Library’s, added, “We’re learning to be self-sufficient.”

Asked how nonprofits should approach town government, Alfred praised the Jonnycake Center. “Jonnycake is giving us quarterly information, telling us what they’re doing, who they’re serving, not at budget time when we don’t have time to process the information, but throughout the year.

“Information is key. Agencies need to communicate better with the different town departments. If we know you, it’s much easier for you to get help, including in a non-monetary way, like letters of support.”

What a difference 10 years makes!

Orban concluded the Forum by congratulating the Coalition on its tenth “birthday”.

“As I was preparing my remarks, I was reflecting how much my own daughter now 17, has changed in the past 10 years.”

“When the Coalition held our first Forum, many people around the state and in our region did not realize we had children and families in need in Washington County. Providers didn’t know each other or what services were available. We’ve changed that and implemented a number of projects and initiatives, like our Holiday Teen Gift Drive, Collaborative Office Rounds, and bullying prevention efforts, that are making a difference,” said Orban.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the work we’ve done together. Though there is clearly more work to do, I’m hopeful about the future.”