by Kella Hatcher
Yes — a diverse group of leaders really can come together to tackle serious problems, and North Carolina’s Child Fatality Task Force is proof. Created in 1991 by state statute, this legislative study commission has been quietly and effectively plugging away for 27 years to advance public policies that literally save kids’ lives – and they’ve been able to do so regardless of the political pendulum.
The Child Fatality Task Force’s annual “Action Agenda” contains recommendations directed to North Carolina’s Governor and General Assembly for changes in laws and policies aimed at saving kids’ lives and preventing child abuse and neglect. This 2018 Action Agenda represents the work of lawmakers, agency leaders, and experts in child health and safety. They come together to examine data, hear from experts, and discuss issues to formulate recommendations. Although the legislature has only been in session for a short time, things are moving quickly, and the fate of some items on this year’s Agenda is already known.
Many of the Task Force’s 2018 recommendations address youth suicide and school safety, topics relevant to discussions taking place in North Carolina and nationally.
One recommendation would require suicide prevention training for school personnel, and a risk referral protocol in schools. These measures are currently addressed in legislation that passed only one chamber last session and is still eligible for consideration.
Also recommended is funding for more school nurses, who spend a third of their time counseling on mental health issues – but are spread so thin they may only be in a school for one-half day each week. The recently finalized budget bill includes $10 million in grant funding for school support personnel such as school nurses, social workers, psychologists and counselors. This is a small step in the right direction, but the funding is nonrecurring, which means it is only available for one year. The state would need $79 million annually to put a nurse in every school.
At the urging of the State’s Child Fatality Prevention Team, chaired by the Chief Medical Examiner, two Task Force recommendations address the problem of youth access to lethal means. Firearms are the lethal means used in approximately half of youth suicides and homicides in North Carolina. Recent years have seen an average of about 44 firearm-related deaths per year for kids age 17 and under in North Carolina. For firearm-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits it’s about five times that number. Meanwhile, only about half of NC gun owners safely store their guns.
The Task Force convened a work group that included representatives from diverse perspectives related to guns, and from that group came the recommendation to launch and fund a statewide firearm safety initiative to focus on education and awareness on the importance of safe storage of guns. Although this initiative was not addressed in the state budget, this is an issue the Task Force will likely continue to advance.
School safety grant funds in the new state budget do include a Task Force recommendation to expand a program that helps counsel families of those at risk for suicide. The aim is to reduce their loved ones’ access to lethal means, particularly firearms.
These recommendations provide just a sampling of many issues addressed on the 2018 Child Fatality Task Force Action Agenda. Other recommendations address safe drug disposal, newborn screening, motor vehicle safety, tobacco use prevention, and more. You can view the full agenda along with facts supporting each recommendation and many pages of Task Force accomplishments through the years in the Task Force’s 2018 Annual Report, on the Task Force website. As we make our way through the remainder of this year’s short legislative session, we remain hopeful that leaders will be as responsive as they have been in previous years to Task Force recommendations that save kids’ lives.
Kella Hatcher is the Executive Director of the NC Child Fatality Task Force