New laws protect Hoosier children

By Tami Silverman

While this summer’s lane closures and orange barrels are a visual reminder that Indiana adopted a landmark road funding bill in the recent legislative session, it’s also worth noting that state lawmakers passed a host of new bills that pave the way for stronger and safer Hoosier kids.

Several of this year’s most promising new laws rely on youth-serving individuals and organizations to address the safety and well-being of our children, the very network the Indiana Youth Institute exists to serve.

Clear links exist between the soundness of a child’s mental health and school readiness, academic performance and long-term health and success. Many areas of Indiana simply don’t have enough service providers in their communities to meet the persistent demand for assistance.

In Johnson County, there are 99 licensed mental health care providers, one for every 1,511 residents. House Enrolled Act 1391 and Senate Enrolled Act 59 aim to increase the number of professionals available to treat those in need by adjusting the licensure requirements of many behavioral health professionals, including social workers, addictions counselors and mental health counselors.

These bills are designed to make it simpler for people with professional licenses in other states to become licensed in Indiana. They also make available a new bachelor’s level licensure standard in some behavioral health sectors.

Indiana graduates a large number of bachelor’s level social workers every year, and the opportunity to be licensed creates an incentive to work in the field, hopefully also in Indiana.

Matt Brooks with the Indiana Council of Community Mental Health Centers, notes the promise of both bills: “The real goal is to expand the opportunity to provide a stronger (mental health) workforce.”

School employees, especially teachers, unquestionably play a leading role in the lives of our children. Yet we cannot ignore the infrequent but distressing cases of teacher misconduct.

Dr. Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, says creating environments where “children are protected and feel secure is a key element in students achieving success.” HEA 1079 aims to increase safety by requiring expanded criminal background checks for school employees. Not only must schools conduct thorough checks on new employees, they also must complete updated checks every five years.

The bill was widely supported as a positive step, but experts caution expanded background checks are not a cure-all.

Teresa Meredith with the Indiana State Teachers Association reminds us of our larger duty: “All of us — every person in society, every community person – has a responsibility to do everything they possibly can, to protect the children in our society.”

One of our greatest child safety concerns in Indiana is how many Hoosier teens have considered or attempted suicide. Recent data shows that Indiana ranks third nationally for the number of high school students that have considered suicide within the past year.

The Marion County Commission on Youth worked closely with legislators to pass HEA 1430, which requires schools to train teachers on suicide awareness and prevention.

HEA 1430 also designates the Division of Mental Health and Addiction as the statewide coordinator for suicide prevention programs. Director Kevin Moore sees this as an opportunity to bring together the many agencies and organizations working to prevent youth suicide.

“This bill sends a very clear message that this (suicide prevention) is important, not just to legislators, but this is important to the citizens of Indiana,” he said.

The organization plans to fill the newly created position of statewide suicide prevention coordinator by mid-summer and submit a report to the legislature by the end of the year.

McCormick applauded both HEAs 1430 and 1079 as “pivotal to accomplishing our goals, ensuring our educators are equipped with the best training possible and addressing the needs of the whole student.”

Many experts agree that each of these laws represent a step in the right direction, and most are encouraged that our state legislature recognized the importance of taking new steps to address well-documented social and emotional needs of our children.

But we should not get too comfortable -– the proposed federal budget includes severe cuts to many of the programs that greatly benefit our kids. As always, more work remains to ensure that each Indiana child has a clear, smooth road to a safe, healthy and successful future.

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.