Home Local News Early Childhood Action Plan updated to address urgent issues impacting children

Early Childhood Action Plan updated to address urgent issues impacting children

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RALEIGH — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services today released an update to its Early Childhood Action Plan to address key actions the department is taking to improve early childhood development in North Carolina. As Gov. Roy Cooper proclaims this week as Week of the Young Child in North Carolina, the updated action plan and efforts to improve children’s behavioral health in North Carolina support the department’s mission to ensure all children get a healthy start in life and develop to their full potential in safe and nurturing families, schools and communities.

Giving children a strong foundation in their early years is the cornerstone of helping them grow up confident, resilient and independent in safe nurturing families, schools and communities,” said NCDHHS Deputy Secretary of Opportunity and Well-Being Susan Osborne. “We are committed to improving access to physical and behavioral health care to provide the best support helping each child in NC reach their full potential and thrive in all areas of life.

The updated action plan focuses on four key goal areas from the original Early Childhood Action Plan NCDHHS is prioritizing:

  • Healthy Babies
  • Food Security
  • Permanent Families for Children in Foster Care
  • High-Quality Early Learning

As North Carolina recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, these goal areas focus on highly urgent needs for families with young children in North Carolina. North Carolina ranked as the 10th worst state in the nation in infant mortality in 2021, and about one in six children is facing hunger. Additionally, thousands of children in North Carolina spend months and even years in the foster care system while waiting for permanent placement. North Carolina is also in the middle of a child care crisis that was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, 278 child care facilities closed in North Carolina. While each of the original 10 goals are an ongoing priority, the four goals listed above are a snapshot of urgent focus areas NCDHHS is dedicated to supporting in the coming years.

The updated plan describes the actions by NCDHHS to address these key concerns such as increasing access to contraception, enhancing NCDHHS food and nutrition programs, deploying regional child welfare permanency specialists to county departments of social services and working to enhance early childhood teacher compensation.

“In addition to highlighting NCDHHS’ strategies to improve early childhood development in North Carolina, the updated report spotlights the important work happening at the local level across our state to move the needle for young children,” said NC Health and Human Services Director of Child and Family Strategy Hanaleah Hoberman. “One of those spotlights is Smart Start of Forsyth County’s Family Care Expansion Program that benefits some families by providing an alternative to center-based care. The program is expected to be expanded statewide this year.”

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The original Early Childhood Action Plan from 2019 was directed by Gov. Roy Cooper and developed in partnership with the NC Early Childhood Advisory Council, early childhood professionals and experts throughout the state. It provides a framework for statewide public-private action to improve health, safety, family resilience and learning outcomes for young children. It includes 10 goals and benchmarks to be concluded by the year 2025 helping ensure North Carolina’s children from birth to age 8 are healthy, safe and nurtured and learning and ready to succeed. A collective effort is required to ensure all children across the state can thrive.

Another significant resource for North Carolina’s children and families is Medicaid expansion that launched on Dec. 1, 2023. Expansion extends health care coverage to more than 600,000 newly eligible North Carolinians between the ages of 19-64. Bringing affordable health coverage to more than 100,000 low-income parents with children at home is foundational to the state’s future.

Children are more likely to receive check-ups and preventative health care when their parents are insured, according to recent studies. Additionally, children’s health and well-being are improved when their parents have access to physical and mental health care. Expanding Medicaid means more healthy parents, which means more healthy children.

One of the biggest challenges for youth is behavioral health, as rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in recent years and as a number of children with complex behavioral health needs are waiting in emergency departments or DSS offices because there is no place for them to go. NCDHHS is investing in resources where children need them the most. As part of the School Behavioral Health Action Plan, the department is expanding the NC-PAL program to increase behavioral health support in K-12 schools. NC-PAL leverages clinical behavioral health experts and builds capacity of school staff in local education agencies across North Carolina. Additionally, 700 school staff and youth-serving partners across the state recently received behavioral health training.

NCDHHS is also using $80 million dollars from the Medicaid expansion signing bonus to improve the behavioral health of children in North Carolina. These funds include specialty treatment programs and intensive supports for children with complex behavioral health needs. These investments mean fewer children boarding in DSS offices, more children in DSS custody living in a home setting appropriate for their behavioral health needs and fewer emergency department visits or stays for children experiencing a behavioral health crisis. The Emergency Placement Fund Pilot, Child Behavioral Health Dashboard and Children and Family’s Specialty Plan are a few examples already at work in North Carolina making a difference in the health and well-being of children and families in North Carolina.

For more information about the Early Childhood Action Plan visit www.ncdhhs.gov/early-childhood.