Our Kids in Mass. Are Alright, But We Can Do Better

By Lonnie Powers

Here in Massachusetts, we have more than 200,000 children living in poverty, and more than one-third of them live in families extremely vulnerable to homelessness. Despite this, our state leads the nation in rankings for overall child well-being, according to the 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks the economic, educational, health and family/community well-being of America’s children.

One of the primary reasons Massachusetts does so well, relatively speaking, can be attributed to the state’s robust network of nonprofits that advocate on behalf of low income children and families. While legal services may not immediately come to mind as a significant factor when it comes to fighting poverty, hunger and homelessness, the state’s civil legal aid organizations are a vital part of this safety net.

To give one example: legal aid organizations routinely secure vital educational services for children. Take the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM), which provided full litigation representation involving education issues to 208 students and their families in FY13. In most of these cases, CLCM won appropriate school services, including placements and reinstatements. CLCM also provided advice and brief services to another 796 students. Among their clients are youth excluded from school or segregated in inadequate alternative school settings, children who are homeless, and children who are in foster care.

The state’s federal reimbursement for the cost of intensive behavioral services provided by Massachusetts to low-income children with autism increased thanks to advocacy by Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC). Beginning in FY08, MAC’s advocacy for the Children’s Autism Medicaid Waiver resulted in the Commonwealth receiving 50 percent federal reimbursement. The waiver was originally capped at $2.5 million but expanded to $3 million in FY11 with MAC’s advocacy. In FY13 MAC again advocated for expansion, resulting in the cap being raised to $4 million. This will result in the state receiving an additional $500,000 in federal reimbursement each year. The program, which served 182 students in December 2013, now has the capacity to serve 220 children. Not only are these children receiving the intensive services they need and deserve, resulting in a higher quality of life, but over the long term, many can be expected to avoid costly institutionalization, saving as much as $195,000 per year per child.

Additionally, the Center for Law and Education combines statewide advocacy with technical support and collaborative policy work to identify the systemic patterns underlying student exclusion from effective education and to advocate for changes in school policies and practices to improve student outcomes. Their work benefits all low-income students, including those with disabilities.

This is the kind of work it takes to keep children, especially those facing exceptional obstacles, in school. As Noah Berger, president of MassBudget, the Massachusetts KIDS Count group, noted in announcing the report earlier this summer, “Dismantling the barriers to success that are holding back too many of our children will not be easy. It requires improving our schools and the array of supports our kids need to be ready to thrive in school.”

Our children need more stability if they’re to succeed as adults. All of our safety net organizations need support to continue their vital work. And civil legal aid must continue to be a part of that safety net to ensure that all of the Commonwealth’s children reach their full potential as students and productive members of our communities.

While we may hold the top spot in the country for child well-being, it’s clearly not good enough. Our kids may be doing better than most, but we want them to be excellent.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.