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ASU experts help drive Arizona Town Hall project on helping families thrive

Annual nonpartisan convention tackles issue of child welfare in Arizona

man and child walking along a path
November 12, 2019

Arizona has seen some improvements in child welfare, but the gains are not equal for all groups — and that's an issue that the state must face, according to Judy Krysik, director of the Center for Child Well-Being at Arizona State University.

Krysik, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at ASU, was one of the main authors of the recent “Strong Families, Thriving Children” report, sponsored by Arizona Town Hall and produced by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU.

The report is the background document for the upcoming Arizona Town Hall event, a three-day gathering devoted to the topic of “Strong Families, Thriving Children.” Arizona Town Hall is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 that educates and connects people around the state to solve problems. Every year, the organization chooses a topic and travels around Arizona, holding community meetings to collect feedback on the issue. The year culminates in a big town hall gathering, to be held Thursday through Saturday this week.

The report covers several aspects of family health in Arizona, and Krysik wrote the chapter on child welfare. One of the main takeaways is inequity.

“The good news is that there are a lot of improvements. The bad news is it’s not across the board,” she said.

“It didn’t matter which indicator we looked at — there are disproportionate outcomes with race and ethnicity. Poverty is one, health insurance, low birth weight, infant mortality.”

For example, the percentage of children living in poverty in Arizona decreased from 26% in 2013 to 21% in 2017. But 45% of American Indian children in Arizona lived in poverty in 2017, up from 41% the year before.

“On the one hand we can celebrate and on the other hand we can say, ‘We’re not done.' We’ve made positive gains but those gains aren’t realized equally across the board.”

Arizona Town Hall topics over the past few years included criminal justice, K-12 education, water and relations with Mexico. Those also included input by ASU experts. The Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU produced the town hall background research report. It was edited by Erica Quintana, policy analyst for the Morrison Institute, who authored the multiyear, five-part research project on childhood neglect released last year.

“Arizona Town Hall reached out to me because the topic was child welfare, and they asked if I could identify experts in the field to author different pieces of the report,” Quintana said.

“I was able to highlight the fact that from the neglect analysis, we saw that domestic violence and substance abuse were things that Arizona families are struggling with, and children are being removed from families based on those experiences. So we were able to advise the research committee that chapters on those two specific areas should be included.”

As part of its annual process, Arizona Town Hall traveled to more than 20 locations around the state, including college campuses and prisons, from Yuma to Pinetop. Every community meeting came up with a list of recommendations to improve family health, such as “make schools a hub for family services,” and “provide transportation for families to visit prisons.” One part of each town hall event was, “What I would tell Arizona’s elected leaders.” Answers to that included: “Walk the city and the streets and take the bus,” and, “Be more transparent with where our taxpayer money goes and show us tangible results.”

Every single town hall urged state leaders to give more funding to education.

Another important point that Krysik pointed out in her chapter is the changing birth rate in Arizona, which had the steepest decline in the nation, falling from 16.4 births per 1,000 population in 2006 to 13 per 1,000 in 2014. There were 102,687 births in 2007 compared with about 81,000 in 2017.

“That was one thing that surprised me and I don’t know how many people realize it,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ve fully explored what that means and where those decreases occurred. So if it’s among higher-income families, will it mean we have the same number of families with a lot of needs, or is it across the board?”

Besides Krysik, ASU experts David Schlinkert and Eric Legg contributed chapters.

Schlinkert, policy analyst for the Morrison Institute, described how Arizona has resettled more than 17,000 refugees since 2014 and how those families face additional hurdles to getting support, such as language and cultural barriers and lack of medical documentation.

Legg, an assistant professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU, wrote about enrichment activities that help families thrive, such as youth sports, library story times and teen recreation programs such as robotics. Cost can be a barrier for some families, and Legg pointed out programs that can help, such as Act One, which provides fine arts experiences, and the Phoenix Public Library’s kindergarten boot camp.

Other chapters were written by experts from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, the Arizona Department of Child Safety and nonprofit organizations. They cover topics such as protective factors for families, American Indian families and adverse childhood experiences, which are traumatic events such as the incarceration of a parent that lead to lifelong consequences.

The report also highlights “bright spots,” such as the decrease in teen pregnancy rates and the ASU Refugee Empowerment Project.

“A lot of times when you talk about social issues, it’s all doom and gloom,” Quintana said. “And we’re all very aware in this field that it’s important, when you can, to highlight those bright spots — collaboration and other things that are occurring. I think the general public hears more of the doom and gloom, but there is progress being made.”

She pointed to the work of the Morrison Institute, which next week will unveil a new mapping tool that highlights risks and services in rural communities in Arizona. The project will be discussed at the institute’s State of Our State event on Nov. 25.

“The goal is to identify those communities that struggle with social issues and then show the services they have available and try to identify communities that might need more,” she said.

The 112th Statewide Arizona Town Hall will be held Thursday through Saturday at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel in Phoenix and is open to the public as observers.

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