(NASHVILLE), June 13, 2017 — Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) called today’s announcement that Tennessee has climbed three places in the national ranking for child well-being “a significant step in the right direction.” Norris made the statement after the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 KIDS COUNT® released their report showing the state has moved from 38th to 35th.
“This is the first improvement that has been recognized since we publicly declared in 2015 an all-out war on this unacceptable ranking,” said Sen. Norris. “A lot of work has been done to move the needle forward. Although 35th is still unacceptable, the improvement recognized this year is a significant step in the right direction in making a major difference in the lives of Tennessee children.”
Norris has led several initiatives aimed at education, workforce development, nutrition and juvenile justice. As sponsor of the appropriations bill, he pushed for state funding for food banks, community health centers and residential adolescent drug treatment programs across the state. This includes a $2.5 million grant to the Memphis Research Consortium this year focusing on children’s health and well-being and funds to create the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences.
As Chairman of the Juvenile Justice Realignment Task Force, he has worked to reform the state’s juvenile justice system, especially as it affects outcomes for non-violent offenders who deserve a second chance. Last week, Norris was appointed to chair a newly formed Blue Ribbon Task Force which will work with the Pew Foundation to analyze and recommend additional reforms.
He also spearheaded funding for the state’s Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE’s) study which has already been used to implement public policy changes to help children who have chronic childhood trauma live a happy and productive life. He sponsored the initiative to provide $2 million in grants for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) work in communities across the state through the Department of Children’s Services.
“The factors young children are exposed to, like abuse and neglect, have a significant neurological impact on their long-term development,” said Norris. “This study has shed light on the problems we face as adverse childhood experiences increase the odds for later difficulties, including the chances that they will enter the juvenile justice system. This study has given us more information about what we need to do to help these children get a better start in life and divert those most affected from a lifetime of crime.”
This year Norris co-sponsored legislation, based on the ACE’s study, which establishes a Zero to Three Initiative Court. The primary goal of the Zero to Three Initiative is to reduce the time of permanency of children in at-risk environments by surrounding families of children age 36 months or younger with support services, whether it is returning them to parents, living with relatives or getting them ready for adoption.
He also co-sponsored legislation implementing an innovative truancy intervention program for students in K-12 schools. Truancy is the most frequent reason given for schools referring juveniles to court.
“If we can get at the root causes of some of these issues and maybe intervene before it’s too late with the next generation, we can make sure we have a next generation,” he said
In workforce training, Norris helped win legislative approval of the governor’s proposal for increased funding for the state’s colleges of applied technology, which teach technical skills for the workplace matching them to local job needs. He also sponsored the Tennessee Promise program and the Reconnect Program, last-dollar scholarship programs which give all Tennesseans an opportunity to receive a degree or post-secondary credential tuition-free.
“The Annie E. Casey report reminds me of the canary in the coal mine. Our children’s well-being and our ability to nurture it is a harbinger. We can rise to this challenge just as we’ve done in other ways in the past. We are doing better in Tennessee, but we must do better still,” Norris concluded.