Monday, March 19, 2012

Statesman Smith fights for South Carolina's children

When building a South Carolina statesman from scratch, one can't do better than to use Rep. James Smith as a model. His Twitter bio encapsulates the case: "Husband, Father, Soldier, Lawyer, Legislator, Musician & devoted American & South Carolinian; thankful for our freedom & dedicated to an even better SC for all."

In a meritocratic world where earned experience and achievement count for something, Smith would be a two-term governor, then represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate for a half-dozen terms, maybe even serve in a presidential Cabinet or two before he retires.

But South Carolina prefers kakistocracy to meritocracy in its government, so Smith's obvious statesmanship is rewarded with trophies and luncheons instead of higher office. Still, it's a unique luncheon that draws together CIA Director David Petraeus, former Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, Senator Lindsay Graham, current Governor's Mansion occupant Nikki Haley, and the statesman from whose cloth Smith was cut, former Governor Dick Riley.

It's this Smith who writes in today's The State about the plight of South Carolina's children, and the need to address their issues immediately.

It has become commonplace to see South Carolina listed in the bottom five states on measures of child well-being. One in four children in South Carolina lives in poverty, a precarious situation that puts them at a much greater risk for some of our most costly social problems, such as child abuse and neglect and lack of school readiness. Forty percent of all cases of abuse and neglect occur among children ages 4 and younger, and one in five children is not ready for the first grade, according to the most recent figures from Kids Count.

While policymakers don’t have a silver bullet to end poverty for all families, we know from decades of research that targeted early interventions can dramatically improve the situation. In a world of increasing demands on government, S.C. lawmakers should rely on evidence to focus our scarce state resources on programs that we know to be effective and efficient.

A solid example of using the science of child development to craft smart policy is voluntary home visiting, which pairs at-risk families with trained professionals who provide vital information and support before birth and during a child’s first years of life.

Evidence-based home-visiting programs can help break the cycle of abuse and violence and help prepare children for success in school. This proven strategy fosters stronger parent-child bonds and a safer and a more stimulating home environment, and increases children’s school readiness.

Mothers receiving home visits from trained professionals are more likely to deliver healthy babies. Mothers as well as fathers who participate in home visiting also learn how to care for their babies during the critical period after birth — when children’s brains grow to 80 percent of their adult size, forming the brain architecture necessary for mental and social capacity. In these years, a child’s brain is twice as active as that of an adult and is soaking up the world around it, building vocabulary, learning skills and undergoing emotional and social development.

Encouraging parental responsibility during these formative years through voluntary home-visiting programs has demonstrated great benefits to the children, reducing the incidence of low birth weight by 50 percent and child abuse and neglect by 80 percent. These programs also have been found to increase early literacy and math skills by an average of 82 percent and reduce arrest rates of children by age 15 by more than 50 percent.

In South Carolina, we invested nearly $7 million in state and federal money in fiscal year 2010 on voluntary home-visiting programs for at-risk families. Unfortunately, we do not have a system in place to track results and determine the best practices necessary to achieve the highest quality outcomes.

This year, I am co-sponsoring legislation that will ensure our home-visiting programs are the most effective and efficient they can be, by establishing a mechanism for data collection and comparison. H.4317 would direct funding to the most effective programs, strengthen standards and improve monitoring of each program’s outcomes.

Armed with evidence, we will be able to ensure that scarce resources are being used to build strong families across the state through high-quality, voluntary home visiting for at-risk families.

What's done to the least of these...

Thanks, Representative Smith.

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