By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Looking for strength in numbers, groups representing poor children and families will push a common set of goals next year.
Advocacy groups specializing in children's health, education, welfare, economics and juvenile justice have joined forces for the first time to ensure that lawmakers know the top issues facing youths and families in Ohio.
"It will be a tool when, as we head into the budget season and they start debating these issues, we can say, 'There's a broad agreement that these are very important issues for children and their families,' " said Erin Joyce Brandt, policy advocate for the Children's Defense Fund, which organized the group.
Four Cincinnati-area organizations have joined the coalition.
Some of the 22 priority recommendations of the Ohio Children's Agenda include making child care available to more poor families and spending more on abused and neglected children.
Crystal Allen, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, said of the 20,000 children in the system on any given day, about three-fourths need mental health or drug treatment. Only about 25 percent actually get it.
"For kids who come into the child welfare system, a lot them have had some very traumatic situations in their lives," she said. "They need some counseling, some mental health services, to help them understand what's happened to them and how to cope with it."
Finding new money in the next two-year budget will be difficult. Tom Johnson, state budget director, noted the penny sales tax increase is set to expire July 1, hundreds of millions in one-time federal money is not available again and Medicaid costs continue to skyrocket.
The coalition, Joyce Brandt said, will push lawmakers to keep the penny sales tax in place.
Col Owens, attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, just hopes things don't get any worse, particularly with Medicaid eligibility, which he said is good right now in Ohio.
"We want that to stay," he said. "As a practical matter, we don't think there's a whole lot of interest in the legislature to monkey with that too much. And that's good."
Owens wants to see the state further simplify access to Medicaid, and do more to get parents of children on Medicaid better access to health care.
Other local coalition members are the Children's Law Center, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and Beech Acres.
Ohio Children's Agenda
Some of the top priorities for the new coalition:
Make it easier to get Medicaid eligibility for child care assistance.
Eliminate state income tax on those earning below the federal poverty line, which is $17,463 for a family of four.
Increase access to public preschool programs.
Create a permanent budget, with increased funding, for the Second Harvest Foodbanks.
Increase the minimum wage by $1.85 per hour over two years.
Increase the tobacco tax by 50 cents per pack, with revenue earmarked for children and family health care.
Provide funding for juvenile courts for programs offering alternatives to detention.
Identify the cost for educating disadvantaged children in grades K-12, and fund it.
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