Child welfare numbers add up to embarrassment

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Editorial in the Beckley Register-Herald

If we had had enough qualified math teachers in classrooms across the state, we may have been better schooled on how to add up all of the statistics coming out of various legislative interim meetings this past week in Charleston. What became apparent is this: We do not have just an education problem in this state, we do not have just a health and human services system overwhelmed by a glut of foster kids looking for safe harbor, we do not have just an opioid drug crisis and we do not have just a problem with derelict and neglectful parents.

What we have is a problem providing for the needs of our children – from the time they come into this world until they walk across the stage at graduation, from the time they wake up in the morning until they turn their bedside lamps out at night.

In a state that likes to regard itself as one that thinks first and foremost about family, the evidence says another thing altogether. We are failing our children, West Virginians, and no one is off the hook.

Is your calculator handy? You will need it to add up the deep damage and the costs to build a tall ladder out.

The state has a dire need for teachers in core subjects – English language arts, science, social studies and math. Especially math. In ninth-grade math alone, 33 percent of our teachers are not certified. For Algebra 1, the noncertified rate comes in at 25 percent. This at a time when several colleges and universities in the state are seeing a decline in education programs, classes that train the next generation of instructors. By way of example, Concord University is ending several education programs on the undergraduate level because of a drop in enrollment. In recent years, according to a report in our sister CNHI newspaper in Bluefield, the university has only been serving, on average, three people a year in math education.

But the crisis is not confined to the classroom. The prevalent downward spiral of student performance and behavior begins long before a child steps onto a school bus – and, if not addressed, becomes chronic, a persistent condition that lasts a lifetime.

On Monday, DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch painted a dispiriting picture of our child welfare crisis and said it would take roughly $100 million for the state to employ the number of new mental health workers that schools need to adequately address the problem.

Here are the numbers:

West Virginia had 725 school counselors last year. To achieve the one-per-250-student ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association, the state would need a total of 1,105 counselors. That would cost more than $20 million.


Additionally, the state had 129 psychologists, but the sweet spot recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists – one per 500-700 students – would bear a price tag of $19 million.

Last year, state schools had 58 social workers. To make sure each school had one, as recommended, the state would need to hire 705 more at a cost of $33 million.

If you think social workers, school psychologists and mental health experts for our schools is a luxury we cannot afford, consider this, perhaps the most damning number of all: According to a recent study, an estimated 26.1 percent of West Virginia children have experienced an adverse childhood experience compared to 21.7 percent nationwide.

The calculation is easy, the reality incriminating: More than one in four of our kids, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Connect research, are victims of traumatic events beyond their control – physical or emotional abuse or neglect, deprivation, exposure to violence and drug abuse and the incarceration of a mom or a dad or a brother or sister. Research shows that as the number of adverse experiences mounts, so does the risk for health problems later in life, including substance abuse, depression, intimate partner violence, lowered productivity and early death. Homework is far down the list of concerns for these kids.

So, while legislators and citizens alike are putting pencil to paper, figuring out how much all of this will cost, and – ultimately – crying about the tax bill while forgetting that education builds economies, know that the price for doing nothing is moral bankruptcy and an abandonment of the hopes, dreams and health – both physical and mental – of the next generation.

We did not dig our way into this problem overnight, but unless we start adding rungs to the ladder so that we can climb out, the hole may well become our grave.