Testimony to the DC Council by Jarred Bowman, Policy Analyst, on the importance of mental health supports

Public Testimony

Testimony of Jarred Bowman, Early Childhood Policy Analyst, DC Action
to the Agency Performance Oversight Hearing Department of Behavioral Health

before the Committee on Health Council of the District of Columbia

Help Early Learning Communities Stay Connected to Essential Mental Health Supports through the Pandemic

We are grateful for the DC Council’s continued commitment to the health and wellness of families in DC and for the ongoing support for the important mission of Healthy Futures. Families in DC continue to navigate the uncertainty of the public health emergency, whether they’ve faced loss of a grandparent, limited opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions, daily images and reports of rising death tolls rising, or the major life changes that can occur when a parent loses their job or contracts the deadly virus. It is crucial that Healthy Futures remain available to early learning communities, helping them to relieve stress, address staff and family concerns, and maintain a positive social-emotional climate in child development spaces throughout the District.

Healthy Futures is an evidence-based program that provides child development centers and homes (also known as child care programs) with behavioral health support services proven to promote positive outcomes and overall healthy development in the infants and toddlers participating in the District’s Child Care Subsidy Program, which serves families who need assistance with paying for child care. Research on healthy child development is clear: the first three years of a child’s life play a definitive role in their long-term growth, and the quality of services they receive can truly make a difference in their lives. 

The reality for many Black and brown families, however, is that these high-quality services are not always easy to come by. If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that our city is built on glaring inequities. These show up in the overrepresentation of Black families in the District’s COVID-related deaths, unemployment rates, and the racial wealth gap. The average income of Black families with children in DC is less than one-fifth of the average household income for White families with children. These disparities represent carefully constructed barriers to Black health and economic opportunity that can be reversed if we are willing to make bold investments in our children within the first three years of life.

Increasing Investments in the Healthy Futures Program Will Help Ensure the District’s Early Learning Community Has a Future Beyond the Pandemic

In fiscal year 2021, the Council maintained the previous year’s investments in the Healthy Futures Program budget, allowing the Department of Behavioral Health to continue the expansion of Mental Health Consultation services in subsidized child care development centers and homes throughout the city. This opportunity to increase the reach of Healthy Futures could not have come at a more crucial moment, as child care programs and the children they serve face challenges brought on or exacerbated by the COVID-19 public health emergency. DBH has pivoted considerably to support child care programs and families, adapting to virtual communication platforms and offering programming designed around current needs. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Healthy Futures program has adopted a telehealth model while continuing to expand to new child development facilities on the path to reaching all subsidized facilities in the District within the next few years. For those facilities currently participating in the Healthy Futures program, staff and parents have enjoyed webinars, workshops, and consultations while also being connected to community-based organizations that possess the tools and resources needed to address the complex challenges that Black and brown families must navigate. We have heard only overwhelming satisfaction from center staff and families participating in the program. 

As the District contends with its early learning workforce shortages, Healthy Futures is an important resource in a toolbox for increasing the quality of care and retaining skilled early educators.. A recent survey administered by DC Action showed that over half of the subsidy providers that responded to the survey reported experiencing staffing challenges, including 40% of whom indicated that staff having health and safety concerns themselves was a significant reason for not returning to work.  Without the needed services that Healthy Futures provides, helping early educators to improve their skills and to provide support, our early education workforce will be in even greater danger. 

As personal stressors mount and young children's stressful experiences begin to show up in the home and in the classroom, the supports Healthy Futures provides are needed to adequately treat harmful behaviors that can have lasting impacts on a child’s healthy future and to strengthen our early educator workforce. The District’s young children and their educators are counting on the Mayor and DC Council to continue to support DBH in its goal to reach all 238 subsidized care facilities in the District.

February 12, 2021