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DeWine Creates New Office To Focus On Children Initiatives

Gov.-elect Mike DeWine (center) introduces members of his transition team (l-r): Communications Director Lisa Peterson, Director of Transition Committee Laurel Dawson and LeeAnn Cornyn, in the newly created position of Director of Children's Initiatives.
Andy Chow
Ohio Public Radio
Governor-elect Mike DeWine announced on November 7 that LeeAnne Cornyn (far right) would lead the newly-created Office of Children’s Initiatives.";

The transition to the administration of governor-elect Mike DeWine is bringing several changes to state government, including a new office dedicated to carrying out one of DeWine’s top campaign promises to  focus on the development and growth of infants and toddlers.

As part of his first major policy rollout, DeWine announced his plan to help Ohio’s children, focusing on providing early childhood education and intervention programs.

Just one day after winning the gubernatorial race, DeWine announced that LeeAnne Cornyn would lead the newly created Office of Children's Initiatives.

Cornyn says there’s already a good infrastructure in state government to help children in Ohio, split among several departments, so her office will help streamline the communication between those agencies.

“This is really just to harness the energy and all of the work that’s going on across different state agencies and work on driving all of those efforts to make sure that they’re aligned, that they’re efficient, that we’re all talking across our different systems,” Cornyn says.

The DeWine Administration has five pillars to focus on for young children:

  • Newborn home visits
  • Early childhood education
  • Mental health professionals in schools
  • Foster care
  • Drug abuse prevention education

Cornyn says home visits and early childhood education can provide crucial intervention for a child who might be behind in behavioral, social, academic and physical development.
“These interventions are very critical for kids really, really early on we’re talking 0-3," Cornyn says. "So before these children even touch any other agency or system we’re really trying to identify these children, identify these families super early and surge these in some resources that help mitigate some problems on the back end that many or our school districts are inheriting."

The new Office of Children's Initiatives is exciting news to Shannon Jones, executive director of Groundwork Ohio.

“The biggest challenge facing Ohio’s youngest and most vulnerable children is that they don’t vote, they don’t have super PACs, and the types of interventions that we know can help them become productive citizens aren’t inexpensive. So it’s gonna require somebobdy who’s willing to make it a priority year in and year out and be that voice for children when they often can’t speak for themselves,” says Jones, a former state senator.

She adds preparing children for kindergarten can have long-term positive outcomes.

“In Ohio, only 40 percent are entering kindergarten ready to learn, so it shouldn’t be surprising us that 43 percent of adults today have a degree or credential that leads to an actual job," Jones says. "So we need to follow the science, we need to follow the research."

Expanding these programs can come with a big price tag. For example, fewer than 4 percent of eligible families are served with home visitations through $20 million in current funding. DeWine wants to triple the number of families served to 12 percent.

State Rep. Tavia Galonski (D-Akron) is also optimistic about the focus on helping children. But she says it comes down to how much money the state is willing to invest in these programs.

“Someone comes up with a funding scheme that actually is only a drop in the bucket for the problem in order to repair the problem, so what I will be looking for very specifically is, what have children services organizations asked for? What type of funding have they already asked for, not received? And then we’re talking about how can you fund additional programming?” Galonski says.

Jones agrees that DeWine’s upcoming budget will be an indication of how serious he takes this issue, however she says success of the programs will have to be measured down the line, through things like kindergarten preparedness and third grade reading.

Cornyn, as with Jones and Galonski, adds that helping children can have multiple benefits.

“So this is critical from an economic perspective, a workforce development perspective, and from a moral perspective just making sure that these kids are able to live up to their full potential,” says Cornyn.

Cornyn adds that many studies have looked into the return on investment for programs that help kids. She says researchers found states can see $14 in returned investment for every $1 spent.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.