Eric Douglas Published

W.Va. Kids Count Tallies Data On State Of Children

Obstacles lie on the path to getting kids to school

West Virginia ranked 42nd in the latest Kids Count Databook produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The databook tracks hard data on the challenges facing kids around the nation. This latest report has a particular focus on mental health and anxiety challenges facing kids after the pandemic.

News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Tricia Kingery, the executive director of West Virginia Kids Count to learn more about the program and how to improve the lives of West Virginia children.

The organization plans to release a county by county breakdown of the information in October.

Douglas: What is West Virginia Kids Count? 

Courtesy image.
Tricia Kingery, executive director, WV Kids Count.

Kingery: West Virginia Kids Count is a private, nonprofit organization. We are one of the state’s oldest child advocacy organizations and we pride ourselves on providing the most trusted data about the well being of West Virginia’s children and we encourage others to use data to drive decisions that help kids have a better life.

Douglas: Rather than just saying, “Well, this is what I believe, you actually have the receipts to prove it.”

Kingery: The foundation of everything we do is data. And I think that’s what makes us a little bit different than other child advocacy organizations. We’ve got a 34 year track record on producing an annual data book on child well being. It is essentially the go to for all things children so that we can see how our children are faring. We recently released the national data book in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. I think it’s interesting to always point out that Kids Count is a network that’s throughout the country, and every state has their own Kids Count. And I’m honored to represent West Virginia Kids Count at a state level, but also at a national level. The Casey Foundation makes that possible. We’re part of a national network and a national movement to help advocate for what kids need most.

Douglas: The organization has been doing this for 34 years producing these kids count data books.

Kingery: Interestingly enough, during the Gaston Caperton administration, he established a task force of business leaders to get involved in child advocacy work. And that was the first Kids Count in the country. West Virginia is leading the way and counting our kids and making them important. His legacy continues with a business driven board of directors. And that’s why we’re a little bit different. We’re all about the data and making sure that we use data to drive decisions, just like a business would do.

Douglas: So this is a nationwide program, but it started right here in West Virginia?

Kingery: It did. It was called a task force. This one, thankfully, turned into West Virginia kids count.

Douglas: What are some of the things you track within the data book? 

Kingery: The Casey Foundation reports on a national ranking. And so we’re compared to other states in terms of how our kids are faring. So this year, the report identified West Virginia as 42. So, we are 42nd overall in child well being in comparison to other states throughout the country, which is a slight improvement. We went from 44 to 42. We typically hover around the 40’s, but that’s why data is even more important. So we can use data to drive decisions and help kids.

Douglas: What are some of the things you track? 

Kingery: There’s overall child well being but what makes that up is the whole child. There’s four of what we call domains, and those four domains are education, health, family and community, and economic well being. So there’s four buckets of data and each of those buckets have indicators in it.

Let me talk about economic wellbeing for a moment. That’s actually where we struggled the most. If you ask me what’s the biggest foundational concern or challenge for children, it’s poverty. This economic well being indicator, we actually ranked 47th in the country. In terms of overall economic well being, and that’s data points, such as children in poverty, children whose parents lack secure employment, children living in households with the high cost of housing, and teens not in school and not working.

Douglas: There were a couple of things that were up slightly, a couple things that were down slightly. 

Kingery: Unfortunately, we do hover in those 40s; 42 is probably the best we’ve been in the last 10 years. So we are making progress. What I want to do is use that data and identify specifically what indicators could push that number down. I mean, let’s be 30 next year, and then 20, and then 10, and then one. Sometimes it’s low hanging fruit. What can we do that can make a big difference? And then sometimes identifying long term change requires step one, step two, step three to do this.

It’s all about using the data, getting the right people to use the data. Our other partner is the legislature. We want them to have access to this guidebook when they’re making decisions and voting, so that they make informed decisions. What the Casey Foundation does is produce the national data book that has West Virginia level data. And then in October, West Virginia Kids Count will publish the state data book which takes those same indicators and breaks them down by county. That allows the media and legislators to understand what’s happening in our own backyard.

Douglas: Give me an example of low hanging fruit; something simple that we could change that would improve the lives of our kids.

Kingery: The focus of this entire data book is on mental health. I think that’s where we can start in terms of low hanging fruit. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has recognized us as being in a youth mental health pandemic. Kids are struggling with anxiety and depression, which affects school absenteeism and academic success, and so many other things. Throw a COVID pandemic into the world of which our youth are living and they’re really struggling.

So we can’t ignore the mental health fallout, or what they call an echo pandemic. It does take shape in the form of anxiety and depression for many of our youth. In 2016, West Virginia children were struggling with anxiety and depression at a percentage of 11.7. And then in 2020, that number jumped to 14.6, which is a 24.8 percent increase. That number is the low hanging fruit because that’s the number of children that need mental health resources and support. That’s where we have to start; mental health awareness. We’ve come a long way even in the past 10 years, but it’s still something that folks don’t talk about. We have to make sure our schools are trauma informed, which means they understand that things that are happening at home, affect a child at school, and to make sure there’s acceptance of mental health issues, that there’s environments where kids feel comfortable talking about what’s going on, and then also the resources and support to give them.

Douglas: Does that run across all socioeconomic classes? Is it related to lower socio-economic children? 

Kingery: It affects all kids, but research tells us that children living in poverty, and, or, children of various races, it does affect them more so. So children of color and poverty, really have a disadvantage right out of the box. So those are the kids that we really need to be watching out for a little bit more than the others, actually a lot more than the others, and making sure that they even have a level playing field, which they don’t.

I’m a firm believer that poverty is at the foundation, the root cause of all of all of our challenges in West Virginia. And that’s why we have to address the whole child and have to look at education, economics, their family situation, what resources are available in the community. Do you have a bed to sleep in at night? Do you have electricity in your home? Do you feel safe in the home? Do you have access to services and resources? Transportation is a huge issue. But that underlying issue is still economic well being and poverty.

Douglas: What would you like to see the legislature do to improve the mental health and overall health and well being of children in West Virginia?

Kingery: Year before last, we advocated for the passing of what we call the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) bill. And it did pass without funding, but it did create an exploratory task force that looks at the impact of trauma on kids. Recently there’s been a report submitted from that task force to the legislature. We want to make sure that the ACEs movement, that people understand what adverse childhood experiences are. And we want to make sure that we help children who are experiencing those events, overcome those issues, and most importantly, to prevent them from happening in the first place.

I’m hoping the legislature looks at the results of the report and advances the adverse childhood experiences effort. And what that means is funding schools to be trauma informed, making sure there’s access to mental health services in the community. It’s funding anything that puts resources in the hands of kids and families at a local level. We really support schools being the center of a community. So making sure schools have the resources.

Douglas: What’s the takeaway message from this?

Kingery: I think most of us who grew up in West Virginia chose to stay here or came back home. We want to make sure that West Virginia is a great place to be a kid and for all kids, not just our own. So that means honestly looking out for the kids in your life, and not just the ones under your roof. But making sure that you keep an eye out in our community because they need us. The problems are so big and so massive and so complex: COVID-19, depression, the opioid crisis, foster care, grandparents raising grandchildren. We have so many issues we have to come together, place mental health as a priority, talk about it, invest in it, make resources and services accessible to all and that’s it’s going to take all of us to make sure West Virginia is a great place to be a kid and for all kids.