The number of Jackson County youths in foster care, or without a home, or experiencing trauma from an unstable home life runs into the thousands and is rising, advocates for children and youth say. Dozens of agencies dealing with those issues have come together as the Children’s Service Fund Coalition and are asking voters to approve a steady stream of funding for needed services.
Jackson County voters will decide on a proposed new one-eighth-cent sales tax for a Children’s Services Fund. It would generate an estimated $15 million a year. It would last seven years, and voters could renew it then. It appears on the Nov. 8 ballot as Jackson County Question 2. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We need better infrastructure to support at-risk children,” said Doug Cowan, president and CEO of the Community Services League, based in Independence.
Cowan stressed that the Community Services League is not endorsing the ballot question but said the funding it would create would address issues CSL deals with daily. Chiefly, those include more temporary shelters for homeless youth, transitional living for those coming out of foster care, and children’s mental health services.
Crystal Williams, chair of the Jackson County Legislature, which put the issue on the ballot, also zeroed in on children’s mental health needs.
“Mental health dollars have been shrinking consistently from the state from a number of years,” she said.
Overall, the coalition says, Jackson and Clay counties face an $80-million-a-year shortfall in such services. (Advocates wanted both counties to put the question to their their voters; Clay County officials declined.)
The tax on the ballot would bite into that deficit, advocates say.
“We’re not asking for a full catch-up …” said Brad Smith, executive director of the Drumm Farm Center for Children in Independence, where more than 50 youths live in a family setting, a shift away from the group-home concept.
The tax money would be overseen by a nine-member board appointed by the county executive. No one with an agency receiving funding could sit on the board. Smith, for instance, said it’s not at all clear that Drumm Farm would apply, but he said other agencies that would qualify are dealing with the issues Drumm Farm sees every day.
“It really is focused on serving the kids we serve,” he said.
Drumm Farm focuses on homelessness and those who have been abused and neglected and therefore removed by the state from their parents.
Teen homelessness is a particular problem, advocates say. Sometimes they act up and parents kick them out. Sometimes they come out as gay, and parents kick them out. Sometimes, Williams said, a teenager looks at the needs of younger siblings and decides the best option is to be elsewhere. One less mouth to feed.
In the Independence School District alone, Smith said, 50 to 60 high school students each night are homeless, that is, lacking in a permanent and safe place where they can eat, study and sleep.
“There is no caretaker system in the government, or anywhere else, focused on those children,” Smith said.
Drumm Farm has five apartments for 17-year-olds in that situation – and could easily fill more, Smith said. They get two years of help to finish high school, learn to handle a checkbook and save money for an apartment deposit.
“These are young people that really are alone,” Smith said, and he adds that this program is “for a population where there is no funding.”
A 2014 study the University of Missouri and the Mid-America Regional Council found that Jackson County had 2,022 homeless students in the 2008-09 school year -- a number that shot to 3,990 in 2012-13.
That report also touches on how one chronic problem in a child’s life seldom comes without others.
“An unaccompanied child in a temporary shelter needs more than a bed,” it says. “He or she may also need counseling case management, food and education.”
Cowan underlined that point, too.
“Very rarely are there single-issue families,” he said.
He said studies have shown that every $1 spent on youth services saves the taxpayers $11 down the line in social services and even law enforcement and jail.
“We know that we have to invest in children,” he said.
Seven other Missouri counties, and the city of St. Louis, have such a tax already. Most are in the St. Louis area, but Lafayette County just to the east of Jackson County also has one. St. Charles County has had its tax for more than a decade and has experienced sharp drops in runaways, teen crime and high-school drop-outs, the coalition says. Smith also points out that grant money usually comes with a requirement for a local match, so that $15 million a year in Jackson County could be leveraged into more.
The University of Missouri report said the metro area “is experiencing increasing need for shelter and housing services for young people living in the region. The rates and number of youth living in situations that put them at risk of homelessness is shown in the number of youth in foster care.”
It added, “... there is a need to intervene early in the lives of students who are demonstrating anti-social behavior and experiencing traumatic life events.”
Inpatient hospitalization for mental health disorders among those 14 and younger in Jackson County rose from 1,110 in 2007 to 1,438 in 2010 and then slipped to 1,303 in 2011 – still a 17 percent rise in four years, the report said.
Researchers asked service providers what the area needs, and they came up with a long list: emergency beds for homeless youth and transitional housing, services for youths to grow too old to stay in foster care, therapy for children who have experienced trauma, more sexual abuse counselors, in-patient beds to treat substance abuse, more beds for psychiatric care, among others. And these: food, transportation, dental care, affordable day care, among others.
Although it would be a new tax, organizers are using the phrase “Renew With 2,” adding the tagline “Renew hope. Renew health. Renew home. Let’s make some changes for children.”
The ballot language of Question 2 is this: “Shall Jackson County, solely for the purpose of establishing a Community Children’s Services Fund for the purpose of providing services to protect the well-being and safety of children and youth nineteen years of age or less and to strengthen families, be authorized to levy a countywide sales tax of one-eighth of one percent for a period of seven years?”
It goes on with a second paragraph: “This fund will be transparently administered in a manner independent of County government, by a diverse, geographically representative, nine-member citizen board appointed by the County Executive, with at least one member residing in each Jackson County legislative district. Revenues will be solely used to benefit the residents of Jackson County.”