Ky. Has Fourth-Highest Rate of Kids Hospitalized With COVID-19 Friday, Sep 24 2021 

Kentucky has the fourth-highest rate in the nation of children hospitalized with COVID-19 for the month of September, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

So far this month, the state has recorded over 26,000 cases in kids 18 and under and an average of 59 children hospitalized each day, making it the most dangerous month for children since the pandemic began. Only Ohio, Montana and Alabama had higher hospitalization rates so far this month. 

The federal data include confirmed and suspected cases, as well as newborns and patients in observation beds. These daily totals are consistently higher than those reported by the state.

The COVID-19 surge coincided with a return to school in August. While Kentucky lawmakers repealed the mask mandate issued for public schools earlier this month, most school districts have kept their mandates in place.

“This surge is affecting children in larger numbers than we have ever seen in this whole pandemic,” said Dr. Lindsay Ragsdale, director of UK HealthCare’s pediatric advanced care team. “We have seen more kids come to Kentucky Children’s Hospital with COVID positive tests and with symptoms. They do seem to have more symptoms this go round, because the Delta variant is more contagious.”

The previous peak among children was back in January, with close to 13,000 cases that month. But like other age groups, pediatric cases began to rise dramatically as the delta variant became the state’s dominant strain. By August, cases had doubled to nearly 25,000 — which is more cases than the previous six months combined. 

Since the pandemic began, four Kentucky children have died from COVID-19 — two of which have occurred in just the last two weeks, according to state data.

Hospital admissions for children have increased by nearly 200% since July. Pediatricians from the state’s children’s hospitals say that while their ICUs have been fuller than ever before during the pandemic, they are working to accommodate as many children as they can and haven’t had to turn anyone away yet.

“[Wednesday] morning, we had 21 kids at Norton Children’s Hospital hospitalized with a positive COVID-19 test. That’s a lot,” said Dr. Kris Bryant, pediatric infectious diseases physician with Norton Children’s and the University of Louisville. “About a quarter of them are in the ICU. If you go back to June, we had many days when we had no children in the hospital with COVID-19. So it’s quite a change. But I really think that’s because the number of cases in the community has increased.”

As the current surge continues, there is also concern that pediatric care units could get too full, making it difficult for children to be seen for non-covid illnesses. As local physicians brace for the upcoming flu season, they are also seeing an unusually early spike in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. This cold-like illness is common, and most kids recover in a week or two, but RSV can also lead to much more severe illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

Bryant said that with the rise in transmission, she is also seeing more cases of Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. According to the CDC, there have been over 4,600 patients in the U.S. diagnosed with MIS-C, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of internal organs that follows COVID-19 infection, and the majority have been Black or Hispanic children. There had been fewer than 100 cases reported in Kentucky as of August 27.

In addition to the more transmissible delta variant, local experts say the rise in COVID-19 among kids could also be attributed to increased activity and interaction, whether through school, family gatherings or community events. But the key, they say, is vaccinations.

“I think the most important thing for people to know is that COVID-19 is a vaccine-preventable disease in kids 12 and older. We have a safe and effective and available vaccine to prevent COVID-19,” Bryant said. 

About 47% of Kentucky’s 12 to 17 year-olds have received their first dose, according to the state’s COVID data, which doesn’t say how many have been fully vaccinated. Pfizer announced earlier this week that its COVID-19 vaccine has proven effective in 5 to 11 year-olds and is now just waiting for FDA approval before it can be distributed widely. Health care officials say the vaccine could be available for Kentucky’s younger children as soon as Halloween.

Contact Jasmine Demers at jdemers@kycir.org.

The post Ky. Has Fourth-Highest Rate of Kids Hospitalized With COVID-19 appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

‘Who Would Miss Me?’ Drugs Increasingly Killing Young Kentuckians In Pandemic Monday, Aug 23 2021 

J. Tyler Franklin

The Kentucky State Capitol on 4/9/20, lit up green in memory of those who died from COVID-19.

Resources: Kentuckians can call 1-833-8KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357) to speak with a specialist about substance use treatment options and available resources. To find openings at addiction treatment facilities, you can also visit www.FindHelpNowKY.org.

Isabell Slusher knows how close she came to becoming a statistic in the opioid epidemic.

She started using heroin when she was 18. And last year, the now 24-year-old was forced into isolation during the global COVID-19 pandemic, a dangerous place to be for someone with a substance use disorder. 

“As addicts, you already isolate yourself. And then when the pandemic hit, you’re then being forced to not be around your loved ones,” Slusher said. “You do start to get lonely. What better thing to do than just lay around and get as high as you can get?”

She got so depressed that she felt her life had no purpose, and her thoughts turned hopeless.

“Who would even know I was gone? Who would miss me?”

Slusher entered treatment last November, and hasn’t used drugs since. But many young people never made it to recovery in 2020.  

Young Kentuckians experienced the highest increase in drug overdose deaths last year, according to the state’s overdose fatality report released this month. The report showed increases in mortality across all age groups, and overdose deaths grew overall by 49%. But the jump for young people was much higher: 127 people aged 15-24, 90% more overdose deaths than the previous year.

Total overdose rates had been climbing steadily over the last decade, increasing by 95% since 2010. But by 2018, those numbers were starting to trend down — at least until 2020 hit.

The exact cause of the increase is unclear, but it’s possible that young people may be dealing with unique challenges during the pandemic.

“They’re already dealing with a lot of uncertainty and just figuring out life,” said Julie Duvall, CEO of Adult and Teen Challenge of Kentucky. “Their peer groups are so important to them and all of that has kind of been disrupted.”

Duvall also said drug use among young people can be misinterpreted as rebellion or behavioral issues instead of a deeper problem.

“We always ask when people come in as part of our intake what drove them to begin experimenting and almost always it’s coping with life,” she said. “These are people that need compassion and healing, not people that need judgment and are just acting out.”

‘Suffering in isolation’

State records show that over the last five years, increases or decreases in overdose deaths have correlated with the number of people reaching out for help and seeking emergency care. But in 2020, emergency admissions didn’t keep pace. 

In 2020, emergency department visits for nonfatal drug overdoses increased statewide by just 13%, compared to the 49% increase in total overdose deaths, according to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center. For young people, the discrepancy is even wider — emergency room visits increased by 10.5% while overdose deaths jumped by 90%.

And Duvall says her treatment program hasn’t seen an increase in admissions.

“I see the statistics and hear that overdoses are increasing and drug use is increasing, but they’re not calling us,” Duvall said. “So, what that tells me is they’re suffering in isolation at home or wherever they are and not reaching out for help.”

Duvall said the restrictions and closures during the pandemic made the process of finding an open bed at a recovery facility even more daunting.

Slusher came into treatment through a court order. She was arrested for violating her federal probation and a judge sent her to Adult and Teen Challenge of Kentucky.

“I think maybe if I didn’t get locked up that day, I know that I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said.”

Slusher started using drugs after her 21-year-old sister died from an overdose six years ago. From that point on, she said she was in and out of jail and began selling drugs — all while experiencing an array of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

Her addiction caused her to push her family away and the pandemic made that even easier, Slusher said. 

“I didn’t want any relationship with my family,” she said. “They were a nuisance to my life because they wanted better for me.”

Slusher said she still has a lot of work to do to earn back her family’s trust, including her 6-year-old son, but she’s dedicated to rebuilding those relationships.

Courtney Duerksen also felt the impact of that isolation. Duerksen, 24, is in treatment with Slusher.

“There have definitely been times where I would take a lot of pills and just not really care. I didn’t care if I woke up or not,” she said.

Now five months into recovery, Duerksen has one piece of advice for anyone struggling with substance use:

“Make sure that you’re reaching out if you need help. Make sure you’re talking to someone,” she said. “Because that’s one thing that I didn’t do. I isolated to the fullest. And if I needed help, I didn’t call anyone.”

Drug Lethality

While the pandemic likely had an impact on the number of people who sought emergency care or other recovery resources, the lethality of the drug supply also plays a part. 

Dana Quesinberry, public health policy and program evaluator for the Kentucky Injury Prevention Research Center, said the opioid epidemic started in the 1990s with primarily prescription opioids. Then heroin was the dominant drug. Since even before the pandemic began, it switched to fentanyl, a much more fatal substance.

“We do know that mortality was increasing in the fourth quarter of 2019, prior to the impact of the pandemic,” she said. “In some ways that makes a tremendous amount of sense, because of the lethality of fentanyl in comparison to heroin and prescription opioids.”

Fentanyl was detected in approximately 71% of all overdose deaths in Kentucky last year.

“It is disheartening. I won’t tell you that it’s not,” Quesinberry said. “Substance use in general has always been something of a whack-a-mole problem. You think you have a particular substance knocked out, either through prevention or law enforcement interventions. And then something else pops up.”

Upward trend continues in 2021

In total, 1,964 people died of a drug overdose in Kentucky last year, about 29% of whom were 35 to 44 years old. Kentucky had the third-highest increase of overdose deaths in the nation in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In the United States, more than 94,000 people died from drug overdose last year— the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

And it seems to be getting even worse this year, according to Quesinberry. 

“There had been a hope … that once vaccines became available and we’re reintegrating our society that we would see a decline in overdose deaths, and we are not seeing that.”

Quesinberry said the goal for experts and advocates is to turn the data into actionable steps for prevention and harm reduction strategies. If experts and advocates know they’re seeing larger increases in younger people, they can figure out how to approach the problem differently for those age groups and be hopefully more effective in their prevention efforts.

And while the data is important, Quesinberry said it’s about more than just numbers.

“Every person who has died, every person who has had a non-fatal overdose, every person who has suffered with substance use disorder is somebody’s parent, somebody’s child, somebody’s brother, sister, coworker, neighbor,” she said. “That’s why prevention and harm reduction services and support for them are very important.”

Jasmine Demers is a Report for America corps member. Contact Jasmine at 502.814.6547 or jdemers@kycir.org.

The post ‘Who Would Miss Me?’ Drugs Increasingly Killing Young Kentuckians In Pandemic appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

‘Supposed To Care’: Absentee Child Advocates Bring Calls For Oversight Tuesday, Jun 1 2021 

Trinitii Puente

Trinitii Puente appears with her family at the hearing for the adoption of two children.

Trinitii Puente became a foster parent because she believes every child deserves to feel loved. It’s a lesson from her grandmother, who grew up in an orphanage and once confessed that she hadn’t felt loved until she was in her 70s. 

Puente, a 49-year-old in Grayson County, has fostered a dozen children and adopted eight over more than a decade. Every child is unique, and so are their legal cases. Puente first attended her foster children’s court hearings in 2018, when Kentucky passed a law affording more participation for foster parents in court. She was aghast as decisions were made that she thought reflected basic misunderstandings of the cases of two boys she was fostering. 

In Puente’s view, no one seemed to be advocating for the children themselves — not even their legal advocate known as a guardian ad litem, or GAL. 

According to state law, GALs are lawyers who fairly and neutrally “advocate for the client’s best interest” so a judge can make informed decisions about the child’s welfare. But Puente said the GAL, a local attorney appointed by the judge, never met or spoke with her and the kids.

“He only knew what the social worker was reporting,” she said of the attorney, who has since died. “How can you advocate for the best interest of the child if you’ve never met them?”

Absentee GALs are a chronic issue across the state, according to interviews with foster parents, policymakers, advocates, biological parents, and guardians ad litem themselves. State law dictates that GALs are paid a flat rate that many say doesn’t come close to compensating them for their time. Because their work is overseen by local judges, there is no single agency upholding standards. 

“We’ve got a system with a perverse incentive: not that the client is appropriately represented but that the judge is happy with your participation in the system,” said state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from northern Kentucky. 

An adoptive parent, McDaniel became interested in reforming the guardian ad litem program when he noticed GALs would sometimes miss his own children’s court hearings. “We have no oversight whatsoever of them,” he added.

GALs who work in family courts are also now to attend at least four hours of training every two years or lose the chance to serve. Many counties have started mandatory trainings, although some worry new requirements will inadvertently create new barriers for would-be advocates in counties with GAL shortages. 

Foster parents say the current scheme accelerates their burnout and their grievances against the system, driving away quality caregivers. Even more dire, shortcomings in the GAL apparatus can leave children without an advocate in court decisions that shape their futures.

“It’s traumatic,” said Emma Rose Lyons, a Louisville foster parent whose foster children were shuffled between GALs she described as ineffectual. “The GAL is supposed to care. But it felt like nobody cared about them.”

Lot of work for the money

In Kentucky, guardians ad litem represent children in cases that, among other matters, involve dependency, neglect and abuse; termination of parental rights; and adoption. GALs typically operate outside the public eye, since juvenile cases are confidential. 

The GAL is supposed to have conversations with the child, their foster parents, family members, school staff, social workers, and the attorneys for the biological parents. They’re also to consult with medical records, school reports, and social worker evaluations. Then they appear before a judge as an unbiased advocate for the child’s interests. 

By law, GALs reimbursed by the state are paid a maximum of only $500 per case, and only $250 in district court cases involving dependency, abuse, and neglect — a flat fee, whether the case lasts a few months or more than a decade. 

“It’s not enough, if you want people to do real work on the case,” said Beverly “Boo” Shea, a Richmond-based lawyer and guardian ad litem with the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky. “With the pay schedule we have here, you’re going to get somebody who is either very dedicated to the work or somebody who doesn’t care.”

Shea previously worked as a GAL in Hawaii, where lawyers can make up to $3,000 before court disposition and up to $1,000 afterward. The judge also has discretion there to pay even more if warranted. 

In Kentucky, the maximum payment for GAL work hasn’t been increased in more than 20 years, and it’s the same no matter how many children there are in a case. In some rural counties, the court relies on a few attorneys. Although the legal profession in general continues to be male-dominated, Kentucky’s GALs are predominantly female. 

As the number of children in foster care has increased, the cost to taxpayers of Kentucky’s GAL reimbursements has risen too, according to a 2019 audit from the Finance and Administration Cabinet. 

Until recently, the state data didn’t differentiate between GALs and court-appointed attorneys for adults. Between 2010 and 2018, state spending on both categories of fees rose about 30%, according to the audit. 

In 2020, the state paid a total of $4.8 million to GALs, according to a list of invoices obtained by KyCIR. Only a handful of GALs in Kentucky bill enough to earn a living off this work alone. The median number of billings per attorney was 10, worth an average total of $4,720 a year.

The state’s top biller is Kimberly Frost, city attorney in Williamsburg and a former district judge. As a young lawyer, Frost decided to become a GAL because the cases were plentiful, and other lawyers didn’t want to take them. That’s still true, she said, in no small part because of the gap between compensation and the effort needed to do a good job.  

“If you work 25 hours, you don’t get to bill every hour you’ve worked…. so a lot of attorneys won’t take juvenile cases,” Frost said. “If I go to court six times, an hour each time — if the fee is $250, you get only $42 per hour. That’s in addition to time talking to social workers, to whoever has custody, to therapists, to doctors, to reviewing documents.”

Frost received $65,550 in 2020 from a total of 135 invoices — nearly all the invoices anyone billed last year in Whitley County and McCreary County.

In both counties, only two or three lawyers serve as GALs for juveniles because the other eligible attorneys pursue “other more lucrative work” or have a conflict of interest, Frost said.

Due to a quirk in Kentucky’s local courts, the same work can bring half the pay in some counties. The law says dependency, neglect, and abuse cases in family court pay $500, while cases in district courts are capped at only $250. 

Forty-eight of Kentucky’s 120 counties do not have a family court, according to the Administrative Office of Courts, which means payments in those counties would be capped at $250. Since 2018, district court judges in more than two dozen counties have ruled the statute unconstitutional, bumping those counties into the $500 payments. But some counties are stuck at $250. 

Roughly 18% of all dependency, neglect, and abuse cases with GALs in 2020 were in district court, according to state data.

GALs in the headlines

The little known work of guardians ad litem grabbed headlines last year when Dawn Gentry, a Kenton County family court judge, was removed from the bench by the state body that disciplines judges after a lengthy investigation into her misconduct. Much of the impropriety involved GALs, including findings that Gentry hired a woman to a local GAL panel in exchange for political support from her well-connected husband, and that she coerced members of that panel to support her campaign. 

To advocates for GAL reform, the case exemplified the systemic pitfalls that make the guardian ad litem program vulnerable to abuse.

State Sen. McDaniel, a Republican from Kenton County, sponsored a bill in 2019 that would create an independent state agency to oversee GAL appointments and services. The bill, which passed the state Senate but died in the House, was meant to address the “wholly inappropriate interdependency” between judges and GALs, McDaniel said. 

Since there is no single state agency to oversee appointments and policies, various branches of state and local government work “with little or no coordination,” the 2019 audit said. The critique mirrors problems identified decades earlier in a 1998 report about the lack of coordination in the state’s GAL system.

Kristie Goff, a Pikeville-based attorney with AppalReD Legal Aid, has worked individual cases that lasted more than a decade, from when a child was five until they aged out of the system. Goff thinks the maximum fee is inadequate, and she knows some GALs are phoning in the work. Still, she doubts that new Frankfort-based bureaucracy is the best solution to the problem. Instead, she wants judges to hold them accountable. 

“I don’t like the idea about a centralized agency coming in from the outside,” she said. “It’s the judge’s responsibility to oversee the guardians ad litem on their list. If [GALs] are not doing their job, the judge should be holding them accountable.”

Seeking more engagement

Christa Moxon became a licensed foster parent because she felt called by God to care for the vulnerable. She remembers the day when state social workers called and told her there was a baby at the hospital waiting for her as “exciting and crazy.” 

The baby was beautiful, and just five days old. Her case was complicated. Moxon and her husband, who live in Louisville, asked lots of questions about the baby’s situation, including if and when she might be reunited with her mother. Social workers gave them conflicting answers. 

Submitted

Christa and Josh Moxon and their biological child

The Moxons figured they’d get more clarity at the court hearings held to discuss the status of the baby child. The foster parents said they were initially told by the social workers not to attend. They attended anyway, but were then told they shouldn’t speak. Court involved high-stakes decisions about the child’s future. To the Moxons, it appeared no one was advocating for the child herself.

In an interview last year, Nathan Goins, family court liaison for the Administrative Office of the Court’s Department of Family and Juvenile Services, acknowledged that GALs will sometimes “go into autopilot” at the end of a case. But judges want to know what work their GALs are — or are not — performing for their clients, Goins said. 

“No judge is like, ‘Oh yeah, my GAL doesn’t talk to the kids and I’m fine with that,’” Goins said. “If that comes out, they have a stern talking to with the attorney, and they’ll take the attorney off the list.”

That decision, though, is largely at the discretion of an individual judge. Representatives from the AOC recommend that foster parents talk to their state social worker, then the county clerk, and then the judge directly if they have questions or concerns about their GAL.

The lack of information goes both ways at times, according to Frost, the GAL in Williamsburg. She said she works directly through the social worker in many cases where she isn’t even provided the foster parent’s name. 

State regulations for social workers instruct them to arrange private meetings between the GAL and the child “if requested by the GAL.”

Moxon said she never met with or even heard from her foster child’s GAL; she learned their  name only after pressing social workers for it, three months into the case.

Moxon was so dejected by her experience with state bureaucracy that she’s not certain if she’ll ever foster again.

“It’s a very broken system,” she said. “The kids get the short end of the stick.”

The post ‘Supposed To Care’: Absentee Child Advocates Bring Calls For Oversight appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Kentucky’s Budget Shrank. These Informal Foster Parents Were Left With Nothing Monday, Apr 5 2021 

Natasha King stands center and her grandchildren sit behind her

J. Tyler Franklin

Natasha King, center, is raising her two grandchildren through kinship care with very little financial help from the state.

Natasha King thought it would be temporary, just a few months. 

When the state called in 2013 and asked if she could parent her two grandchildren, she didn’t hesitate to take in the kids she loved more than anything in the world. Their mother’s drug problems had gone from bad to worse, and their father had addiction issues of his own. 

King, a 46-year-old nursing assistant in Lexington, Kentucky, is still the primary caretaker of her grandchildren, now 12 and 13 years old. Although she had been working two jobs to support her family, she had to quit one during the pandemic to guide the kids through online learning. 

King receives just $225 each month in public aid through the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or KTAP. 

She could be receiving more. There used to be a state program for grandparents and other relatives who are raising children that have suffered abuse and neglect. Participation in this program would nearly triple the support King receives. 

But that program was closed to new families in early 2013, just months before King took in her grandchildren. In 2019, pressured by a federal court decision, Kentucky started paying some relative caregivers under a new program. But the new program wasn’t retroactive. King’s application was rejected.

“It’s been scary,” said King, who’s worked 12-hour shifts at the hospital since recovering from a bout with COVID-19. “I have guardianship. I make their decisions. I basically just don’t get any benefits for them.”

Kentucky is an epicenter of America’s “hidden foster care” system, a gray area in which caregivers shoulder the many burdens of parenting with few of the supports afforded to licensed foster parents. The phrase, coined in a recent legal journal by University of South Carolina professor Josh Gupta-Kagan, describes any instance where child protection agencies shift the physical custody of children without relying on a court-sanctioned removal into foster care. 

From the perspective of the state, kinship care is a win-win: research shows that children tend to do better in the homes of people they know than with strangers. And while licensed foster parents can receive north of $1,000 per month for the most high-needs children, relative caregivers are inexpensive: informal placements with kin yield little or even no financial support.

For kinship caregivers, the status quo is fraught with problems the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated. Many feel intense social isolation and a lack of support from the state’s dizzying patchwork of social services. They’re also aggrieved that children must spend time in state custody for their relatives to qualify for some public benefits, a quirk that feels cruel and perverse to those already sacrificing. 

Since most kinship caregivers in Kentucky are grandparents, kinship care often involves cutting into retirement savings or Social Security benefits. Some relative caregivers are mired in poverty. Others are mulling bankruptcy. 

The situation is most dire for caregivers like King who took in children between 2013 and 2019, when one program was closed and another was opened only to families whose children were in state custody. Stuck in this gap, some kinship caregivers feel they’ve been all but abandoned. 

Kentucky’s ever-shifting landscape of support for relatives is confusing to caregivers and even to child welfare professionals. Relatives who call the state’s kinship support hotline say they often receive different answers depending on who picks up the phone. 

“It’s crazy the amount of misinformation floating around Kentucky,” said Shannon Moody, senior policy director at Kentucky Youth Advocates, a Louisville-based nonprofit. “Workers don’t even know sometimes what the new program is called, or what’s available to relatives.” 

Coronavirus Stresses Caregivers 

A growing body of research suggests that children placed with kin experience more stability and fewer behavioral challenges than those living with non-relatives. These children are also less likely to be removed from their homes again once they return. 

In the early 2010s, the number of children in the Kinship Care Program peaked around 11,700. The number suggests far more Kentucky children were in hidden foster care than were in the official placements tracked by federal data. 

a graphic displaying the number of foster youth living with relaties

One of every 13 children in Kentucky is being raised by a relative who isn’t their biological parent, according to estimates from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That rate of kinship care is one of the highest in the U.S., totaling some 77,000 children. 

Since last year, the coronavirus pandemic has strained these kinship caregivers. Surveys conducted in August by Kentucky Youth Advocates found that a majority needed more financial support than before the pandemic, while four in 10 needed more emotional support.

Older kinship caregivers are also more susceptible to serious complications from the coronavirus. That poses a risk to the children who may not have other relatives to rely on in a crisis. 

“I’m the only one these kids got. I got to keep myself together,” said Patty McClanahan, a 64-year-old grandmother raising six grandchildren on her own in Richmond. 

Some caregivers want to stay at home to stay safe from COVID-19 and watch the children, many of whom are still participating in school online. But they need to work and find child care, which is both expensive and a coronavirus risk.  

If she gets sick, McClanahan worries her grandchildren would end up in the sort of legal trouble that has tripped up so many others in her community.  “Everything I’ve done to keep them out of the system would be in vain,” she said. “That’s a big worry. I think about that all the time.”

Confusing Requirements, Inadequate Pay

A timeline of changes in the kinship care system in KentuckyAnne Polston and her husband took in their eldest grandchild more than a decade ago. They were offered payments under the Kinship Care Program. But, at the time, the family declined — they didn’t think they’d need the help. 

“Because I was only taking one child, and I was working, I said if I couldn’t care for them on my own, we shouldn’t take them in,” said Polston, who lives in Casey County.

Back then, Kentucky’s offer for caregivers like Polston — the Kinship Care Program, which provided $300 per child, per month — was well below the monthly rate the state offered to its licensed foster parents. Compared to other states, though, the program was generous. Several states don’t provide any financial support to relatives who are not licensed foster parents. Many others offer what’s called a “child-only” welfare payment that in some places amounts to less than $100 per month. 

When Polston took in more grandchildren six years ago, she decided she wanted the Kinship Care payments from the state. But by then, the program had been closed to new families. 

The state froze the Kinship Care Program in 2013, citing a budget shortfall of $87 million.

“I was madder than a hatter,” recalled Polston, 53. “I know the government hurts for money. But speaking as a family of six, we hurt for money too.”

Many Kentucky relative caregivers considered the Kinship Care Program workable: a small but reliable monthly payment that came without the scrutiny of licensed foster care. Those relatives in the Kinship Care Program before 2013 have continued to receive $300 per month until the child turns 18. By 2019, the program was supporting around 5,000 children, a figure that has shrunk every year.

The state created a new path to funding for relatives in 2019: becoming approved foster parents, though that plan has created new confusion. For the thousands who agreed to take custody in that half-decade between programs, assistance has been minimal. 

A spokesperson for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services did not answer emailed questions about whether the new policies are too confusing for caregivers and state workers, or what financial assistance might be available to relative caregivers stuck in the gap between 2013 and 2019. “Across the commonwealth, relatives and fictive kin are unsung heroes,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “We continue to assure that staff are provided with extensive training in order to meet the unique needs of relative caregivers while continuing to expand services available to them.” 

Youth advocates want the state to fund the families who missed out so they can focus on caregiving, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. But that’s expensive, and politically formidable. Re-opening the Kinship Care Program to additional families could cost tens of millions each year.

Proponents of paying kinship caregivers less than foster parents point out that they receive fewer trainings and, some argue, they simply need less financial incentive to take in a child they already know.

Relatives outside the foster care system are eligible for some safety net benefits, including food stamps and the state’s child health insurance program. Those who can demonstrate serious financial need can get a monthly payment under the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or KTAP, the state’s welfare program. That starts at $186 a month per child. 

Leanne Barton, 56, is raising her two grandchildren in Bourbon County. Due to the pandemic, she spends most of her time in close proximity to her grandkids, monitoring their schoolwork and listening in on their online classes. Like thousands of her peers, she’s struggling on $186 per month for the children she is raising and protecting from foster care. But despite her hardship, she said, “I didn’t do this because it was more money.

“I do it for the kids.”

Court Ruled Unequal Benefits Were Illegal

With its support for hidden foster care gutted after the 2013 moratorium on the Kinship Care Program, Kentucky faced pressure to diminish the disparities between relative caregivers and foster parents.

Lawyers and advocates representing kinship caregivers took the state to federal court, arguing their clients had been relegated to second-class status. Previous court battles established that if relatives are licensed as foster parents, states must pay them the same rate they would any other licensed home. But federal policies allow states to place kids with kin by simply “approving” them, a process that involves a background check but less training. 

D.O. v Glisson would finally test what many national child welfare observers bemoaned as a double standard. The plaintiff, a great-aunt raising two young boys, argued she was due payments from the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services. In 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Deborah Cook ruled that Kentucky had to pay relative caregivers it approved as foster parents on the same basis as licensed foster parents. “[I]f Kentucky is denying benefits because the aunt is related to the children, it is violating federal law,” Cook wrote.

Two years later, Kentucky legislators created a relative payment structure. At a 2019 hearing in support of the bill, state Rep. Chris Fugate, a Republican from Perry County in the southeastern corner of the state, said the new program “basically reinstitutes [the] Kentucky Kinship Care Program” that was stopped in 2013.

But critics of the plan describe it as a sort of Kinship Care-lite — a restrictive and overly complicated scheme that formalizes the second-class status of kin instead of ending it. 

More Money Available — If You Give Up Custody

Under the new plan, relative caregivers can get approved as a “child-specific foster parent.” The state retains custody of the child and the relative caregiver receives $6 per day while awaiting approval and $11.51 once approved. It’s slightly more than the old Kinship Care Program, but still significantly less than what’s received by licensed foster parents raising children they aren’t related to — which starts at $24.10 per child, per day. It’s also a fraction of what federal estimates say a middle-income family actually spends per child.

A bill passed by the Kentucky legislature last week requires kinship caregivers receive a “detailed placement packet” listing supports available to kinship caregivers, including a notification form explaining the process of becoming a child-specific foster home. State rules already require social workers to discuss service and benefit options with families, but the bill’s proponents say new requirements would clarify a process that has confused many families.

Significantly, the new program excludes relative caregivers who immediately take custody of a child, meaning a relative willing to take in a child might have to first let them be placed with strangers in foster care. 

For Susan Sanchez, a Louisville grandmother raising her 14-year-old grandson, the idea that she would have had to give up her grandson to be able to afford raising him was unacceptable. 

As a result of emotional and physical abuse from childhood, her grandson suffers from severe anxiety, she said. He can’t see a movie in a public theater, let alone ride a public bus without risk of a panic attack. Foster care wasn’t an option. “If my grandson had to go into foster care in order for me to get him, I would have made such a bucket of myself downtown in the courthouse that they probably would’ve arrested me,” she said. 

Sanchez receives some support from the KTAP benefits program, but no child support from the boy’s parents or kinship payments. She took in her grandson just weeks after the Kinship Care Program was closed, in 2013, and she’s received nothing from the new relative care program established in 2019. 

Had she been a licensed foster parent, Sanchez could have received more than $60,000 over the last eight years. Sometimes she thinks about how that money could’ve changed things. Maybe she would’ve gotten her grandson into youth sports, or she would’ve bought a car so he could explore his hometown. 

“I have five credit cards I maxed out and haven’t been able to pay on in over six years,” Sanchez said. “We take our family members out of love, not for financial gain.”

‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’

It’s unknown exactly how many children live in kinship placements in Kentucky because the state isn’t releasing data on the status of thousands of abused or neglected children who were removed from the home of their biological parents, despite a state law that requires the data be kept. In September, DCBS released a report with partial data on kinship placements, and state officials said in interviews they need more time to gather and analyze additional data because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The data that is available suggests that in the years since Kentucky stopped giving money to caregivers in informal placements, the number of youth in foster care living with relatives increased dramatically. According to federal data, 12% of Kentucky foster youth lived with relatives in 2019. That’s well below the national average of 31%, but four times the proportion who lived with kin in 2015. 

Barry Shrout is proud of his four granddaughters, ages 7 to 14. He leaps at every chance to brag about them: the As on their report cards, their achievements in cheerleading and basketball, their quick wits and good spirits.

Shrout, a 63-year-old in Maysville who runs a small delivery service, took in his eldest granddaughter a decade ago, when her parents were in the throes of drug abuse and trouble with the law. He got custody of the other three more than a year ago.

Like a lot of kinship caregivers, Shrout is confused why he’s being paid less than foster parents for the same work. “I’m doing the same thing with my children as a foster parent is,” he said. 

He also gets more money for one child than the others, an example of how the ever-changing policies can create unequal circumstances within a single family. 

Each month, Shrout receives a total of just $562 in state support: kinship care payments for his eldest granddaughter, and KTAP for the other three. 

With their other expenses, he said it isn’t enough to take his four grandchildren to McDonald’s.

“Our circumstances aren’t great,” said Shrout. “I’m in the situation where I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Although Shrout could receive hundreds more dollars as a licensed foster parent through the 2019 program, he doesn’t think the tradeoff is worth the risks, even with his hardships. “I want to give them the best life that I can give them,” he said. “I know some parents out there don’t care. But I’m one of them that does.”

Contact Graham Ambrose at gambrose@kycir.org.

This story was co-published with The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.

The post Kentucky’s Budget Shrank. These Informal Foster Parents Were Left With Nothing appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Mountain Air: Youth Help Identify Causes Of Ohio Valley’s High Lung Disease Rates Monday, Dec 9 2019 

Digital CameraIsabella Back, 18, pulls her jacket tight around herself as she crosses the gravel driveway.

“So we’re going about 10 feet from my house to my dad’s workshop,” she says, and pushes through a door in a big, red barn.

The Kona, Kentucky, shop is crowded with cluttered work tables and hulking machines, and the sound of whirring and grinding fills the air. The shop smells of paint and other chemicals. Back’s dad, Rod, started this metal fabrication shop after he got laid off from coal mining. He mostly makes signs for local businesses. He waves a friendly hello.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Isabella Back at her father’s workshop in eastern Kentucky.

“He uses so many chemicals to paint the metal, strip the metal, stuff like that,” Back said. “It scares me a little bit, because I don’t want him to get sick.”

Back documented the shop for the Mountain Air Project, a study with the University of Kentucky that explores potential environmental contributors to lung disease in the southeast corner of the state.

Courtesy the Mountain Air Project

Spray paints in the Back’s workshop.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of adults in Letcher and Harlan Counties reported having an asthma diagnosis, compared to 8 percent nationally. Rates of COPD were also higher in eastern Kentucky.

Higher rates of smoking explain some of that disparity, said Mountain Air Project manager Beverly May, but not all of it. “The question from a research perspective is,” May asked, “what other things might be contributing to the disease, and could it be our environment?”

In addition to an epidemiological study, researchers employed a research practice called Photovoice, which asks people in a given community to use photography to share their experiences and perspectives with researchers who are typically not from that community. After receiving photography lessons from esteemed Appalachian photographer Malcolm Wilson, 10 young people between the ages of 12 and 18, all attending Letcher County schools, set out with digital cameras to document contributors to lung disease in their communities.

“To our knowledge, this is the first Photovoice project in the Appalachian region to specifically involve youth focusing on environmental health,” said University of Kentucky researcher Katie Cardarelli.

Health Vs. Livelihood

Researchers analyzed the students’ photographs to identify larger themes which might have gone unnoticed in a traditional health study. One such theme was the choices many eastern Kentuckians have had to make to earn a living.

Several photographs expressed deep concern for the dangers that coal mining posed not only to individual coal miners, but to whole communities exposed to particulates from resource extraction. One student submitted a photo of a coal-transport railroad visible from their backyard. “Our area has been coal country for years,” wrote the student photographer, “exposing us to things that people in most parts of the country are not exposed to.”

Courtesy the Mountain Air Project

Participants were also concerned about coal dust exposure.

Several earlier studies show higher incidence of disease in communities near large-scale strip mines. This one, however, did not. UK researcher Jay Christian said his analysis of the current contributors to lung disease did not point to environmental exposure from coal mining or oil and gas drilling. “We’re not finding clear evidence of population-level exposures that appear to be driving the high rates of lung disease,” Christian said. But previous exposure may still have contributed to current instances of disease.

“Coal mining has decreased very rapidly in the region,” he said. “So it’s hard to know how airborne particulate levels in the region now compare to those 20 years ago.”

Occupational exposure to coal dust remains a significant factor in the region, with rates of black lung disease skyrocketing in recent years.

Cultural Legacies 

“There were a lot of photos that our participants shared with us that took place on porch settings,” Cardarelli said. “A lot of these youth talked about, for example, if they wanted to spend time with their families, that might have to occur on a porch where a lot of smoking was going on.”

Courtesy the Mountain Air Project

Participants documented many exposures to cigarette smoke. Kentucky and West Virginia have the nation’s highest smoking rates.

Smoking rates in Kentucky are among the highest in the nation, behind only Guam and West Virginia.

Kentucky had the dubious distinction of placing three counties among the country’s top 10 for highest rates of smoking in 2012. Eastern Kentucky’s Clay County had a smoking rate of 37 percent. In Letcher County, where Back lives, 30 percent of adults smoked cigarettes.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Back said the health impact of smoking weighed heavily on her. “It’s not just second-hand smoke you’re exposed to; you’re exposed to that way of life,” she said.

Back recalls an instance from when she was 17, driving home with a member of her family who smokes. The pair stopped at a gas station, and Back wanted some water and some chips. But she knew her family member only had enough money for gas and a pack of cigarettes. So she kept silent. “I didn’t want them to not be able to get their cigarettes,” she said. “I didn’t want to inconvenience them like that.”

Back documented the incident in a photograph for the study. In the image, a package of cigarettes lies open on a table next to a scattered handful of coins.

“It’s not an everyday thing for me to choose between food and a pack of cigarettes, but I know for so many people in eastern Kentucky, it is,” Back said.

Courtesy the Mountain Air Project

An image Isabella Back provided for the Mountain Air Project.

A Voice’s Value 

The Photovoice project wasn’t the only part of Mountain Air to use alternative research methods. The researchers collaborated with a community advisory board made up of east Kentucky residents to make sure local people’s perspectives were taken into account.

Roy Silver is a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, and he served as the chair of the advisory board. “Frequently, when researchers want to research what’s going on here in the mountains, they don’t work with the local people to figure out what are the best ways to do that, and also how to take that research and make it of use to people locally to improve the quality of life.”

One day in 2014 when researchers and community members were gathered together on someone’s porch, they stumbled upon a novel approach to collecting and analyzing: Hollers.

Those narrow valleys, with their central streams and single-access roads, define the mountain way of organizing communities.

“Wouldn’t you think, if you’re concerned about environmental exposures, that the people who all live in the same holler would have pretty much the same exposure? And that’s just us talking as hillbillies,” researcher May said.

Back at the University of Kentucky, Christian took the idea and found that where county-level environmental health averages may obscure variations of exposures, hollers corresponded neatly with federally recognized 14-digit hydrologic unit codes – that is, small segments of creeks and streams that all lead into the same body of water.

“They tend to be formed around these little valleys and areas with little creeks running down them, which is why they line up so well with hollers,” Christian said.

May said innovations like that, coupled with the community involvement, meant that the project “helps us dig down into how people really live.”

The community advisory board also suggested including local young people in the research.

Although the Mountain Air project considered Photovoice an “exploratory study,” students identified factors contributing to poor air quality that the researchers might not otherwise have considered. Students photographed citronella candles, moldy showers, dusty air vents and heavy pollen. Those factors are unlikely to be significant contributors to eastern Kentucky’s higher rates of lung disease, Cardarelli said, but the researchers may include at least some of them in a second iteration of its household survey.

“My colleagues and I were so impressed with the youth participants from Letcher County,” Cardarelli said. She hopes to involve youth in the next Mountain Air project, and is already working to involve young people in some data collection. “They clearly have a role in the future to make their communities better.”

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mountain Air Project participant Isabella Back at her Letcher Co., KY, home.

The project brought lasting value to participant Back. “I don’t think there’s a lot of young people to talk about things like our environment,” she said. “You don’t have a class in high school to teach you to speak up about things like this.”

Now a freshman at Georgetown College in central Kentucky, Back hopes one day to move home to help the community move forward. “I feel like I have a greater appreciation for using my voice as a young person, because people will listen to you, and people will take your ideas and your perspectives into account.”

The youth Photovoice study was published in October in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. An article on the novel use of hollers for conducting epidemiological research will be published this month in the Journal of Progress in Community Health Partnerships. The full epidemiological study is forthcoming.

The Next Louisville: Youth Talk Environment Saturday, Oct 26 2019 

This year, as part of The Next Louisville, WFPL is highlighting the stories of youth in our community. Some of that is through long- and short-form stories about kids, teenagers and young adults and their interests, achievements and challenges. You’ll also hear more first-person stories about and by young people in Louisville.

As part of this project, we’ve planned a different kind of platform to let youth talk about issues that matter to them.

Six youth talk shows are planned this year, all focusing on different topics, in partnership with WE Day Kentucky. In this edition, four young people met in our studio to talk about the environment and climate change — talking about ways they’ve become involved in climate activism, and their wishes for the future.

The discussion was moderated by Fernanda Scharfenberger, a senior Presentation Academy. Joining her in the studio were Bayley Amburgey, a senior at the University of Louisville, Scotty Monteith, a senior at Saint Xavier High School and Nia Douglas, a senior at the Brown School.

From left to right: Bayley Amburgey, Nia Douglas, Fernanda Scharfenberger and Scotty Monteith.

Listen here:


Why do you care about climate change or how has it affected you and your own lives?

Bayley: “I am actually from Appalachia. I’m from Eastern Kentucky…my papaw was a coal miner for 27 years. And then my great grandpa was a coal miner for 49 years. The reason I got involved in climate justice is because my papaw, he actually had a lot of health complications from working in the mines. And I realized that coal actually was causing health complications for people who didn’t even work within the mines in my hometown, because of the water pollution that it causes, as well as high cancer rates, polluting the air, things like that.

“My papaw actually ended up passing away from black lung disease. The cause of death that the doctor said was a heart attack, but the heart attack was caused because his lungs were not functional from working in the mines for so long and breathing in ash and soot every day. So yeah, I lost him when I was 13 years old.

“And I knew I was upset about it, but I didn’t know the bigger political implications until I got to college and learned about climate policy and justice and the actual effects of coal on the environment…People deserve jobs where they don’t have to breathe in toxic fumes and pollution every day, but still be able to make it a living wage and have good health care.”

Scotty: “My mom was in the army so I’ve been pretty much all over the world and I’ve been fortunate enough to see the amazing world that we live in. And because of this, I love nature and I want my kids to experience the same type of love for nature and the earth.

“We were at Glacier Park up in Montana, and I remember them mentioning that around 2030, almost all their glaciers would be gone. That just struck me something that we shouldn’t be OK with; this park is called ‘Glacier National Park,’ and they’re not going to have glaciers in a few years. So, that’s why I started getting into activism.”

Nia: “In an urban setting and also in the black community, climate in general, and the environment is not really mainstream topic. But it has very detrimental effects that we don’t even realize. So I think it’s important to just spread that to everyone that I know, and let them know.”

Fernanda: “For me, it really connects back to core values and this belief that I have, that no young person should have to fear for their life in the place that they call home. Last September, we had a period of really heavy flash floods, and during one of them a boy at Trinity named Davey passed away during one of these flash floods. And for me, that really woke me up to the impact that the climate crisis was already having on our community of Louisville. And that’s kind of what spurred me into taking action and getting involved in the different organizations I’m now active in leadership roles.”

Fernanda Scharfenberger and Scotty Monteith.

What barriers have you faced and trying to enact change as a young person? And what has been the hardest part of being a climate advocate?

Scotty: “I guess, climate change deniers. It’s a science and people are saying like, ‘I don’t think that’s all there.’ Like, imagine walking into your freshman biology class and being like, ‘I don’t think that that’s what a plant cell looks like,’ with no prior knowledge…That’s what’s probably the most annoying thing for me.”

Bayley: “I have two things that I think are really challenging. The first being that a lot of adults like to comment things like on social media, when they see videos of kids protesting and they’re like ‘shouldn’t those kids be in school,’ or ‘what are they doing? These kids have no idea what they’re talking about.’

“And it’s just like…they’re seeing videos of those young kids and assuming based on the fact that they’re in high school that they don’t know that climate change is happening. I mean, it’s October 2, and it’s 97 degrees outside. I don’t really think that there’s a debate at this point. The fact that people have the audacity to be doing nothing and then talk trash on people who are out there actively trying to make a difference, especially talking down to them, because they’re children is very, very frustrating to me.

“And the other being both inside and outside the climate movement, I’ve noticed the lack of talk around things like immigration, things like race, things like being a woman, being trans: identity and how that plays into climate change.

“Displacement is going to be a major issue. I read an article that said in the 2030s sometime, the Middle East is going to be too hot to occupy. Where are all those people going to go? …And no one wants to address the fact that black people tend to be in the most polluted areas of the country, no one wants to address the fact that if we would have not displaced indigenous folks who lived off the land, the land would still be in pristine condition. No one wants to talk about those kinds of things. No one wants to talk about how reparations is a part of climate change.

“So that’s another really frustrating thing for me is just the lack of intersectionality within the movement, because…there’s no way we’ll be able to solve for the absolutely drastic things that are coming if we don’t take absolutely drastic measures.”

Scotty Monteith and Bayley Amburgey.

Nia: “Being in the black community, it really just is not a mainstream issue to a lot of people. So trying to get the word out to them is a challenge.”

Fernanda: “More and more, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been having upsetting conversations with other young people around the uncertainty of our futures as young people. How has the climate crisis changed how you think about the future, both as a citizen of this global world that we live in and also in relation to your own professional goals and the way you see your future shaping up?

“I know, for me, personally, I’ve definitely always been a high achieving student. And so I had this dream that I’d get into a good college, I would work really hard on academics. And I knew I always wanted to be in the political spectrum of things, but knew that I would have a platform to be able to advocate for the issues that I care about. But with this looming threat of climate change, and as I become more educated about it, that’s motivated me to now decide that I’m taking a gap year before I start college to work full time for the 2020 elections, and also to engage more young people as first time voters and to get them plugged into these organizations.”

Nia Douglas.

Scotty: “Yeah, the future is really dark, especially when you look at the news. It’s just day after day, you read other things about EPA regulations being cut or you learn that there are these programs in place but they’re not being enforced because literally no one is working under these organizations. It’s scary. I know it’s very pessimistic to think. But like, a part of me thinks that even if we don’t succeed, I know that I tried. And that’s good enough for me to know that I put up the fight.”

Bayley: “I get the question about whether I’m going to have kids. I personally have decided that when I’m older, I would like to adopt. And it’s not even necessarily because you know, a lot of people make the argument that the world’s overpopulated. My issue is more… How much time do they have left? If I give birth at 30…how much time are they gonna have? I genuinely think that. I worry about how much time I’m gonna have. I think often ‘will I see my full lifespan because of climate change?’ And a lot of people think, ‘oh, you’re being dramatic.’ No, I’m really not being dramatic.

“I have decided that I want to write environmental policy with my degree. And I want to because I’m also going to teach for a little bit, I want to make an intersection between education and what we learned about climate change growing up and make that connection with climate policy and things like that.”

What action would you like to see out of our own elected officials? And how can adult allies be supportive of us youth and our work?

Bayley: “From officials, I would love to see some concrete policy. That would be incredible. So many cities have passed green new deals, including New York. If a local green New Deal can be passed, that’s incredible.

“Honestly, if you’re not going to help us take on the work, funding is a huge thing. Especially being a college student trying to organize and pay my rent, it’s almost impossible…So a lot of it’s funding to help us throw these events and buy food for people when they come out and help it make sure everybody’s fed and all that stuff: that’s the stuff that adults can help us with, because it’s kind of hard for us to do it ourselves.”

Nia: “I’ve noticed a lot of times when I’m in the same space as [elected officials] when they’re talking directed towards youth, they like to, like pressure on us and say, ‘get involved within politics and stuff,’ and ‘we hear what you’re saying and we’ll get back to you’ and all that…if you could actually put action action to those words, that’d be great.”

The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here. 

 

 

Ky. Health Advocates Credit New Law For Rise In Tobacco-Free Schools Monday, Sep 2 2019 

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky says a new law that went into effect this year has helped increase the number of schools in the state that are now tobacco-free. Kentucky lawmakers earlier this year passed a law banning students, employees and volunteers from using any tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — on school grounds or during school events. 

Data from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky released last week show that prior to passage of the new law, 74 school districts had policies banning vaping or e-cigarettes. Now, an additional 74 districts have taken up the policy, a total of 84 percent of public school districts in Kentucky. Enforcement of the law is left up to schools.

Ben Chandler, the president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said the uptick in the number of schools going smoke-free is “remarkable.”

“It just sends a signal and changes the norms if all the school districts become tobacco-free,” Chandler said. “Now that so many have, it’s going to be difficult for some of the outliers to refuse. I mean, they stand out like a sore thumb.”

Courtesy Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

148 school districts have passed the tobacco-free policy, according to data from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

Schools have until July 2020 to comply. They can choose to opt out of the law for up to three years.  

That’s what officials with Union County Public Schools in western Kentucky did. This year, Union County banned vaping in schools, but not on field trips or at sporting events, according to Assistant Superintendent Brian Lovell. He said the school board wanted more time to train staff in enforcing the policy away from the school setting. 

“And how to diplomatically go about doing that, you know, redirecting someone’s smoking on someone else’s property,” Lovell said. “We just felt like we needed time to take a measured approach to this and be deliberately conscious about how we move forward.”

Lovell said the district doesn’t plan on opting out for the next school year and is working with the local health department on language to inform the community and on training staff.

“We very much want to become a tobacco-free campus that we feel like we need to take a real measured approach, and make sure that our community and parents and students all understand what that process looks like, and what’s expected of them at the games,” Lovell said. 

Lovell said his district just recently started seeing a big rise in students using vapes in the past few years, which follows a nationwide trend. In 2017, about 14 percent of Kentucky high schoolers reported vaping, and by 2018, 27 percent of high schoolers reporting having tried vaping, according to surveys by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. ‘

Kentucky To Begin Tracking Mysterious Lung Illness Linked To Vaping Thursday, Aug 29 2019 

The Kentucky Department of Public Health will begin tracking cases of a mysterious illness linked to vaping. Nearly 200 cases among teenagers and young adults from as many as 22 states have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of late last week.

Acting Kentucky State Epidemiologist Douglas Thoroughman said beginning next week, the agency will ask providers to voluntarily report any cases of teens or young adults with symptoms of the severe lung illness.

“If you’ve got someone, especially younger patients — because that’s where we’re seeing a lot of this nationally — that are having acute respiratory distress syndrome, or pulmonary issues that have had a pretty sudden onset, ask questions,” Thoroughman said. “Are they vaping? Are they using e-cigarettes?” 

Cases have been reported in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. One patient in Illinois has died. Ohio officials said last week they are investigating six potential severe lung illness cases in which patients reported using e-cigarettes or vapes.

According to the CDC, symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever and chest pain, among others. In some cases, symptoms worsened over a period of days or weeks and required hospitalization.

In Kentucky, Thoroughman said the health department hasn’t received any reports from providers of teens or young adults showing similar symptoms. 

“But it’s happening in other states, it might be happening here as well,” said Thoroughman.

A spokeswoman from Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville said they haven’t seen any cases of the illness there. And there haven’t been any patients presenting with those symptoms at the University of Louisville Hospital, a spokeswoman said. 

Even though there aren’t any apparent cases, some are criticizing the state for not tracking vaping-related illnesses sooner. Ben Chandler, president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said doctors and researchers have sounded alarms about the known and potential harms for quite a while.  

“Welcome to the ninth inning is all I can say: they should have been on this a long time ago,” Chandler said. “Because other states are actually investigating, actively investigating these issues.”

But tracking vaping-related health incidents hasn’t been happening in Kentucky, or nationwide. According to a report from Kaiser Health News, there’s never been a clear way for doctors to report vaping-related illnesses to health authorities. While the Food and Drug Administration tracks incidents related to medical devices and drugs, e-cigarettes and vapes don’t fall in either category. 

A Common Denominator

Though the all of the cases found in other states are linked to vaping, health officials aren’t sure whether the cause is a new product, a new flavoring or some other vape component. Thoroughman said if Kentucky finds any confirmed cases, the CDC will compare those to cases in other states to see if there are any similarities.

“So the CDC has the opportunity then to look across the board: are they seeing any common exposures, particular substances that are in the vaping canisters, or cartridges, things like that,” Thoroughman said. “Our whole job is to try and prevent more cases. So we have to figure out what’s causing it in order to do that.”

Teen Vaping In Kentucky 

The use of e-cigarettes among teenagers is well documented, and increasing, in Kentucky. In 2017, about 14 percent of high schoolers reported vaping, and by 2018, 27 percent of high schoolers reporting having tried vaping. That’s according to surveys by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. 

And though vape pens are sometimes marketed as a way to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, there’s mounting evidence that teens take up vaping without ever smoking a cigarette. 

Investigations last year by The Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission found vaping companies market to teens. They said companies use flavors like bubble gum, roasted nut clusters and creamy milk and sliced bananas to appeal to teenagers and young adults. Chandler said young people become addicted to vaping because the products often contain nicotine. 

“They’re becoming addicted very quickly, and probably using them far, far too much,” Chandler said. “And people don’t know what’s in these products. They haven’t been vetted completely by the FDA.”

In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will consider a bill that would put an excise tax on e-cigarettes, which are currently the only tobacco product not taxed in Kentucky. 

Nearly 7,000 Youth Employed Through SummerWorks Thursday, Aug 29 2019 

Louisville’s SummerWorks program helped a record number of youth find jobs this year, city officials announced Thursday. 

During a news conference, officials said nearly 7,000 young people between 16 and 21 were employed this year with help from SummerWorks. That’s up from more than 6,200 last year.

Metro United Way Chief Equity Officer Daryle Unseld said he’s excited for the program’s growth.

“Our community believes that all young people are assets, right? And we are investing in those assets,” Unseld said. “It’s all about providing those quality opportunities for young people because, again, we are investing in our future.”

A new report commissioned by KentuckianaWorks, the program’s operators, found that 84.2 percent of SummerWorks employers surveyed said the program was beneficial to them, with 100 percent saying they’d recommend the program to other employers. The report also said that participants were more likely to graduate high school and find a job than youth outside the program. 

SummerWorks was started in 2011 by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer with the goal of connecting youth who have fewer advantages to summer jobs. That year, the program helped employ 216 youth.

SummerWorks is funded through public funds and private donations. As part of a lean city budget, the city this year cut $100,000 from SummerWorks’ budget. At the time of the announcement of the cuts, Fischer pledged to donate 20 percent of his salary to the program, around $25,000, which is expected to help fund the program’s 2020 season.

Fischer said SummerWorks is doing great things and he’d like to see more employers participate.

“We’ve got thousands of more companies that could step up and help us,” Fischer said. “What we find is SummerWorks benefits the employers as much as it does the summer youth.”

Employers who participated this year include Heine Brothers’ Coffee, Crowne Plaza, the U.S. Census Bureau and Kentucky Kingdom.

AmeriCorps To Fund Conservation In Louisville Tuesday, Aug 27 2019 

Five young adults will spend the next year working on conservation projects in Louisville thanks to a new grant from the civil service group AmeriCorps.

The approximately $75,000 grant is a small piece of more than $7 million AmeriCorps has awarded to fund 21 programs across the state.

The Louisville pilot program will engage the five AmeriCorps members in projects focusing on some of the city’s most pressing environmental issues including improving the city’s tree canopy and watershed protection.

“We’re partnering with TreesLouisville and Louisville Grows to make sure the tree canopy in Louisville is expanded this year. That is the primary part of their work,” said Lynn Rippy, YouthBuild Louisville executive director.

YouthBuild Louisville’s Urban Conservation Corps will manage the program and help gather matching funds for a total of about $150,000 for the year-long program.

The program is looking to recruit economically disadvantaged youth between the ages of 16 and 24.

The five volunteers will provide 8,500 hours of service, Rippy said. They’ll also engage another 200 volunteers to help plant trees and cleanup spaces, among other projects she said.

Some of their work will involve providing manpower for other groups working to improve the tree canopy like the Green Heart Project, Trees Louisville and Louisville Grows, Rippy said.

“So they’re going to be the boots on the ground for the tasks the community has already set in place for itself,” she said.

In return for their service, the five AmeriCorps volunteers will receive a stipend and a college scholarship.

YouthBuild is still accepting applications for the program, but the deadline is quickly approaching. For more information, visit the YouthBuild website.