Q&A: Children’s advocate urges state to put surpluses toward early childhood services

Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman
Children's Advocacy Alliance Executive Director Holly Welborn poses for a portrait in Reno on May 26, 2023. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent).

Holly Welborn said that six years at the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and another four working in youth delinquency in San Francisco were the springboards that prepared her to be a fierce advocate for youth.

Now, as the executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Advocacy Alliance (CAA), which promotes child welfare in Nevada, she’s been spending the legislative session taking on children’s issues with a focus on early childhood investments and the well-being of families.

“I think I'm best known for my work in the space of juvenile justice,” Welborn said. “It's been the core of my career — protecting young people.”

Welborn said her work experience has shown how early childhood and juvenile justice are interconnected with issues, such as children’s behavioral and mental health issues and housing stability, the minimum wage, or providing meals for kids.

“The earlier we can provide stable outcomes for children and families, the better outcomes they will have across the board in the future,” she said.

Nevada has a history of low rankings in early childhood systems and mental health services. That’s why she’s urging lawmakers to use new resources such as American Rescue Plan dollars to invest in an Office of Early Childhood Education and wants to diversify the Early Childhood Education Council.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent this month, Welborn discussed the top three bills that the organization is promoting vigorously this session, as well as the legislation that the group considers harmful for youth.

Are there any policies that you’re promoting and are there any that you're concerned about?

As far as our proactive priority legislation, it seems that most of the budget line items and the bills that we're promoting, either as an organization or in coalition with other organizations, are in a good place and, of course, those primary bills in the area of early childhood are AB113, which would establish the Office of Early Childhood. 

It's a smaller appropriation to establish the office so I mean, that could really go either way, just depending on how the budget lands, but we're remaining hopeful that it does get passed and that it gets funded.

[Editor’s note: AB113 seeks about $300,000 from the general fund in the upcoming biennium. It was awaiting action from the Assembly Ways and Means Committee as of Friday.]

And then AB114, which was a companion bill that would change the makeup of the Early Childhood Advisory Council. When we think of early childhood, we have to think of it as a system of different programs, including health care, education, housing stability — the full spectrum of issues that impact early childhood and success at the youngest most vulnerable age, which is zero to 3, zero to 5, zero to 8 in some cases.

By expanding and diversifying the professional background of folks on that committee, we will have a more holistic view of the early childhood system.

[Editor’s note: AB114 passed unanimously in both the Senate and Assembly. As of Friday, it awaits action from the Assembly to concur with amendments.]

Why do you think that AB114 has more of a chance to pass than AB113?

I hate to look into a crystal ball because we don't know right now. It's hard to pinpoint the direction that the money committees will go. We do know that we have a budget surplus and that there is a lot of money in the budget. 

We know that there's not a whole lot of investment in child care and other early childhood services. So an investment in the office would seem like an easy investment to make, but anything can happen. So I'm feeling pretty strongly about the chances of the policy moving forward but, of course, anything could happen, but AB114 doesn't have a fiscal note.

What other policies is CAA watching or promoting?

SB232 — what this bill does is it expands Medicaid coverage to include 12 month eligibility for postpartum care. Right now, it's 60 days, and Nevada is only one of 11 states that still has not moved to cover postpartum for that extended period of time.

[Editor’s note: SB232 passed out of the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday and awaits a vote of the full Senate as of Friday.]

If the policy passed, would the coverage include having a doula?

Yes, there are postpartum doulas. Medicaid does cover doula services but, like everything else, it will depend on how it is billed.

You said you are all pretty hopeful that SB232 will pass?

Yes, it passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with unanimous bipartisan support. So I think there's a lot of support to move it forward. So we are feeling hopeful about that legislation. Of course, anything can end up in the budget fight. 

Anything with a fiscal note is fair game, but these are worthwhile policies that help a lot of people that have bipartisan support, and the state should be willing to make the investment, especially when we have the surpluses that we have now.

Would you be surprised if any of these policies did not pass?

It would be shocking if postpartum expansion was not covered, for all the reasons that we've made in our arguments, including the fact that we're only one of 11 states that has not done it. The fiscal note has dropped dramatically because of the federal matches that are available. Over 50 percent of births in Nevada are covered by Medicaid, and then there's a drop off where they don't have that extended postpartum care.

So there's a serious policy consequence for not making that investment. It was even surprising that it wasn't included in the governor's budget.

I can say that, especially with the postpartum bill and the bill to create an Office of Early Childhood, the fiscal notes are quite small. They're good public policy, they help move the state forward. So it would be incredibly disappointing if they didn't become the policy in Nevada.

Are these the top three policies that CAA is watching?

Those are the top ones that we've been proactively pushing and helping lawmakers to understand. And then, of course, there's legislation that we are concerned about impacting children.

Mainly, we've been very vocally opposed to both AB330, the governor's school discipline bill, and AB285, Assemblywoman [Angie] Taylor's school discipline bill. We did testify against those.

We’ve pushed out an advocacy letter where over 64 organizations and individuals signed on in opposition to both of those pieces of legislation.

I don't want to speak for the assemblywoman at this point, but we have made some really good progress on AB285. And we're hopeful that we can scale back some of the harm to elementary school-aged children, particularly because there are no alternative behavioral schools or programs for children in that age group.

So what this means is that children with behavioral issues will either be learning at home, who likely have problems at home, which means there could be extended educational interruptions that exacerbate behavioral issues and students can end up with involvement with the juvenile justice system or with the child welfare system, because they are not in an environment where they can learn.

As far as AB330, we have major concerns about the zero tolerance policy. After a certain point, a child will be permanently expelled, which means removal from a school district. This can cause major long-term harmful impacts to young children.

[Editor’s note: AB330 passed the Assembly in a 38-4 vote and awaits action in the Senate. AB285 also passed the Assembly in a 38-4 vote, has passed out of a Senate committee and awaits a vote of the full Senate as of Friday.]

Can you speak to the importance of children advocates speaking loudly against those school policies? 

Yes. Every side thinks that they are doing what is best for kids. And a lot of the time people are only thinking with one viewpoint. So it is our job as advocates to educate on all unintended consequences, or perhaps intended consequences … that should not be the public policy of the state.

We're on the bottom of every good list and the top of every bad list when it comes to kids. And there's real opportunity for improvement with budget surpluses. 

We want a safe learning environment for child development and learning. We are on that side. But sending people directly into the school-to-prison pipeline, especially at that age, has been proven to be the wrong solution and it does not lead to safer outcomes in schools.


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