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Rick Watson and Jason Armstrong: How are the kids doing? Wellness is especially important in pandemic conditions

Rick Watson and Jason Armstrong: How are the kids doing? Wellness is especially important in pandemic conditions

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Pediatrician examining infant

As law enforcement leaders in Illinois and Missouri, respectively, we have seen firsthand how our communities prosper when kids get a good start in life. Every child who has the benefit of a healthy, supported upbringing is more likely to grow into a thriving, law-abiding adult.

Right now, however, the physical and mental health of our youngest children is at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic. Regularly scheduled appointments with medical professionals are an important component of maintaining kids’ health. Over the last year, the frequency of these well-visits has decreased.

This decline is troubling for police chiefs and sheriffs responsible for public safety. Wellness checkups allow medical professionals to track children’s developmental progress, identify behavioral concerns, test for exposure to lead, keep kids on schedule for vaccinations, and provide guidance for new parents — all important measures to avoid significant health problems that can have lifelong implications.

We therefore encourage all parents to schedule their children’s routine well-visits with their medical providers. Parents concerned about coronavirus exposure should know that the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that medical practices are adhering to protocols to ensure the well-being of them and their loved ones.

The problem of declining routine health care visits has been particularly acute in Missouri, according to preliminary data assessing households served through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. From February through July of 2020, Missouri was one of five states that experienced the most dramatic decreases in standard vaccinations for children under 2, a key indication that infant and toddler care is suffering.

Even before the pandemic hit, it was clear that we had to bolster children’s access to care. In 2018, nearly 20% of children aged 0 to 5 in Illinois and Missouri never saw a doctor, nurse or any other medical professional. It is clear that we can do more to expand children’s access to health services.

Lawmakers are proposing a bill in the Illinois General Assembly that could play a role in encouraging more families to schedule the well-visits that are recommended in a child’s first years. House Bill 354, sponsored by Rep. LaToya Greenwood of East St. Louis, would expand the Illinois Medicaid program to include coverage for doula and home-visiting services. Doulas are trained providers who support parents prenatally and for the first months of a child’s life. Home-visiting professionals provide voluntary parent-coaching for new and expectant families. Both doulas and home-visitors educate parents on the steps they can take to keep their kids healthy. By allowing Medicaid to cover the costs of these services for low-income families, more children will be on a path to lifetime wellness. Twenty-four states already allow Medicaid coverage for home visiting — but not Illinois or Missouri.

One of us — Chief Jason Armstrong — has personally experienced how a home-visitor helps connect families with health care providers. The Parents as Teachers home-visiting model, which is used in both Missouri and Illinois, was founded right here in the St. Louis area 40 years ago by Ferguson-Florissant School District kindergarten teacher Mildred Winter. When Armstrong’s family moved from Georgia to Missouri, a Parents as Teachers educator found a primary care doctor for his daughter, and has continued to provide support throughout the challenges of the pandemic.

As members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids — a national, bipartisan group of law enforcement leaders — we have long championed a continuum of care for young children, from home-visiting programs to child care to preschool. These programs each are proven to boost health and academic outcomes, while helping to prevent crime and violence in the long term.

Regular well-child visits go hand-in-hand with these efforts. Maintaining these visits with a health care professional and utilizing the services of programs such as Parents as Teachers can help children get the start they need in life. When parents seek out care for their kids, and when state governments employ policies that broaden access to that care, we all benefit through the health and safety of communities in Missouri and Illinois.

Rick Watson has been St. Clair County sheriff since 2012. Jason Armstrong has been Ferguson’s police chief since 2019. Both are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

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