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Step Forward responds to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine's State of the State Address

In his 2024 State of the State address, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine outlined several key priorities and initiatives that would benefit children and families in Ohio. 

A family walks toward the camera.

As the largest Community Action Agency in the state of Ohio, the agency is committed to providing essential services and support families in Cuyahoga County.

First, Governor DeWine mentioned a 2023 revision to the childcare quality rating system and further highlighted the increased access to childcare in Ohio. Governor DeWine said that through expanded eligibility, Ohio’s public preschool programs were able to serve an additional 16,000 preschoolers in 2023. He then announced the creation of Ohio’s Childcare Choice Voucher Program for families that made up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. DeWine promised that this new investment would provide financial support to 8,000 additional children statewide.

“Step Forward applauds Governor DeWine's commitment to supporting Ohio's families,” Dr. Thea Wilson, Step Forward’s Vice President of Children and Families, said. “Every child deserves a strong start in life and that begins with access to high-quality early childhood education programs.”

The state's accomplishments toward increased access to childcare within the last year resonate with Step Forward's efforts to ensure that every child has access to high-quality early education. The governor's announcement about the new voucher program also aligns with the agency's mission to provide financial support to families in need, particularly those facing hardship. Such initiatives are crucial steps towards improving outcomes for future generations in Greater Cleveland. 

Throughout his State of the State address, DeWine outlined several initiatives aimed at empowering families with young children, including the promise to reallocate federal funding toward childcare access grants and Ohio PROMISE, a program that trains early childhood professionals learn how to care for and teach children with disabilities.

“In less than a year, over 2,700 professionals have been trained, and we have seen a 20 percent increase in the number of children with disabilities who are now being served,” he said.

Governor DeWine’s emphases on the importance of teachers and school principals in shaping the education of Ohio’s children was a poignant reminder of the critical roles such individuals play in students’ lives. Like many educational institutions, Step Forward’s Head Start has faced challenges in recruiting and retaining educators, significantly impacting the support the agency has been able to provide to children and families in Greater Cleveland. As of April 2024, the agency was hiring for 72 positions throughout its Early Head Start and Head Start classrooms. If fully staffed, Step Forward could open 22 more classrooms and serve an additional 372 children in need.

A woman sits with young children and babies in a classroom.

“Programs like some of those that DeWine mentioned, including the Principal Apprenticeship Program, could have a broader impact on educational institutions like Head Start,” Dr. Wilson explained. “By equipping educators with the skills and support they need, we hope to fill vacancies and ensure that our schools and early education programs have the leadership and expertise necessary to provide the proper education and support necessary. It’s a positive step towards strengthening Ohio’s education system and improving outcomes for all children.”

DeWine continued, speaking about children who experience vision problems.

“If a child has difficulty seeing, they will have difficulty reading and difficulty learning,” he said. “Tragically, that is the case for too many Ohio children.”

While Ohio children are to get a vision screening at school, the governor confirmed that some students fail and never receive a comprehensive follow-up exam to determine whether they need eyeglasses. In response, the governor announced the creation of the Children’s Vision Strike Force, a group that will work with professionals statewide to help improve the vision screening process among Ohio’s children.

DeWine continued, talking further about Ohio’s focus on children and adolescents. Specifically, he spoke about the complex behavioral health among our youth. He highlighted the challenged that some families are facing and emphasized the importance of programs like OhioRISE, which connects them with professionals. He shared a powerful story about a family’s experience with OhioRISE, illustrating the transformative impact of wrap-around care.

“We recognize the significant impact of behavioral healthcare needs, including those participating in early education programs like Head Start,” Dr. Wilson said. “Even early education teachers have observed shifts in behavioral health among young children. It has prompted a concerted effort to address these challenges both in the classroom and at home.”

In 2024, Step Forward will launch its own initiative throughout Head Start, aimed on early intervention for behavioral health issues. As of April, details about the program had not yet been announced.

Behavioral health, though, hasn’t just been affecting children. DeWine said the demand for behavioral health services has increased twice as fast as the increase in the workforce. He declared a new opportunity that he said would ideally recruit people to work in that industry.

“If you are pursuing a degree in certain areas of behavioral health, you can get $10,000 toward your education before you graduate,” he promised. “This isn’t a loan. It is a grant that you do not have to pay back! Ohio’s colleges and universities have the funds available right now to spend on these students.”

A family adores their two infants.

Among other topics, Governor DeWine spoke about the need to address maternal and infant health disparities, particularly among minority communities. Fittingly, he addressed this topic during Black Maternal Health Week, a week that is held annually to focus on amplifying Black women's voices, perspectives, and experiences toward improving and advancing Black maternal health. 

According to the Centers for Disease and Control, Black women are up to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications compared to white women, with most maternal deaths being preventable. In 2023, the March of Dimes analyzed each state for their preterm birth and data on infant mortality and maternal health. It graded Ohio as a "D," saying that the preterm birth rate state was 10.8 percent in 2022, higher from one year prior. Cuyahoga County, in particular, was graded as an "F." Its preterm birth rate was said to be at 12 percent, worse year over year from 2021 to 2022. The March of Dimes added in its report that 916 babies had died in Ohio in 2021. 

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“We know that access to prenatal care, education, and support services can make a significant difference in the health outcomes of both mothers and babies, and we are committed to expanding access to these services for all Ohioans,” DeWine announced.

In 2023, Step Forward’s Baby and Mommy Support program provided 157 expectant mothers with life skills coaching. The program, designed to prepare women for the arrival of their child and help guide them postpartum, is provided at no cost to income eligible families. BAMS offers one-on-one consultations, training, and wellness workshops, each focused on how to care for a baby, nutrition and wellness, self-care, how to cope with stress, breastfeeding, postpartum depression, and more.

Step Forward BAMS onesie

In DeWine’s 2024 State of the State address, he said Ohio has been especially focused on reducing the premature birth rate. Throughout the past few years, the state has expanded its home visiting program in which trained professionals respond to the home of new mothers and parents to answer questions they may have. He announced a new partnership aimed at helping an additional 36,000 expectant mothers have healthy babies. Through the initiative, he said that the state will be able to refer women to other resources for food assistance, housing, transportation, and to help meet their additional needs.

“I was especially pleased to hear about the new Family Connects program,” LaTasha Thomas, Step Forward’s Community Services Coordinator, pointed out. “This means every new mother will be eligible to receive a visit from a nurse three weeks after delivery, so that the nurse can guide families to additional support or identify whether a mother and baby may need additional help.”

Visiting nurses will also be able to assist with breastfeeding and safe sleep practices. 

“Ensuring safe sleep for infants is paramount in preventing infant mortality,” Thomas said. “Education is the key to empowering caregivers with the knowledge and tools needed to create a safe sleep environment. By promoting those safe sleep practices, we can help protect the most vulnerable members of our community and ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive.”

DeWine said that in places where such programs were implemented, Child Protective Services investigations decreased significantly, fewer mothers experienced postpartum depression, and hospitals experienced a 50 percent decline in emergency room visits.

In 2023, Step Forward's BAMS program partnered with Cribs for Kids to help combat infant mortality and prevent sleep-related deaths. Through enhanced curriculum, Family Development Specialists were able to educate caregivers and their families about the sleep guidelines endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics

Finally, DeWine highlighted the importance of addressing the social determinants of health, such as poverty and housing instability; issues that staff at Step Forward has seen firsthand.

“Governor DeWine’s address reaffirmed the importance of the work we do here at Step Forward,” Douglass Bennett, Step Forward’s Vice President of External Affairs, concluded. “We are proud to be a state that prioritizes the wellbeing of its families and children, and we look forward to continuing our work to support and empower Northeast Ohioans to achieve their full potential.”

Read Governor Mike DeWine's full State of the State Address here:

Final As Prepared Governor Mike DeWine 2024 State of the State Speech
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