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This State Spotlight features Libbie Sonnier, Ph.D., Executive Director, Louisiana Policy Institute for Children. 

The Capacity-Building Hub, an effort of the National Collaborative for Infants & Toddlers (NCIT), offers consultation and support to assist Pritzker Children’s Initiative-funded state and community leaders and their coalitions to make the provision of PN-3 opportunities and services more equitable. The goal, by 2023, is to help states and communities reduce by 25 percent the gap between the children and families served by high-quality programs and the children and families who want the services but don’t have access to them. The Hub aims, by 2025, to help states and communities decrease the gap by 50 percent. The Hub will progressively grow its efforts to increase the knowledge of all state and community leaders by sharing promising strategies and resources other states are successfully using to improve maternal health, birth outcomes, and infant-toddler well-being.

The State and Community Spotlight is an ongoing opportunity to share the work happening at the state or community level and foster connections between grantees.

What big PN-3 goals is your state focused on?

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
The first goal of Louisiana’s prenatal-to-three initiative is to increase the number of low-income Louisiana infants and toddlers receiving affordable, high-quality early care and education, by 25% over the baseline by 2023, and by 50% by 2025. Our second big goal is to increase the number of Louisiana families with children, prenatal to age three, who are connected to essential health, development, and social emotional support services, again by 25% over baseline by 2023, and 50% over the long term by 2025. Read more about the Louisiana plan here.

What are the primary challenges you face in achieving those goals?

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
Our primary challenges are pretty similar to everybody else's right now. We're in the midst of a pandemic, but we also just experienced devastation by Hurricane Laura in the southwest and up towards the central and north parts of our state. So we have pandemic recovery and we have hurricane recovery. We're a very culturally rich state, which is such a positive, but we tend to be under-resourced. And so, we're looking at what funding is going to a look like in our 2021 fiscal session. And we’re thinking about how we make progress towards the goals we laid out for Pritzker that we desperately want to achieve.  How do we get there in an economic decline that we're probably going to still be experiencing three to five years after this pandemic?

One of the ways is through Early Head Start grants. We've been able to support the work of writing for Early Head Start grants in at least three communities in our state to help increase the number of children that have access to high-quality early care and education with wraparound services. The challenges are making us be really innovative and also do what we do best in Louisiana: be scrappy and figure out how we make sure that young children and families have access to the supports and services that they need to promote optimal development.

Were there any pre-COVID challenges?

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
Prior to COVID, our governor had put $25 million in his budget for early care and education in the state which we were thrilled about. In light of COVID-19, that $25 million did not materialize. Now we are having to step back to where we were pre-COVID-19 - protect what we have financially, but also acknowledge that we served about 16,000 children under our Child Care Assistance Program  and are currently serving approximately 4,500 more children due to CCDBG funds through the CARES Act here in the state, but we know we have about 173,000 at-risk children birth to three in need of access to high- quality early care and education. We have to figure out how to serve the children who are at risk in our state. That was a challenge before, and it's even more so of a challenge now. But it doesn't stop us from pushing the envelope. There are CARES Act funds that will not be spent as originally projected outside of the CCDBG funds, and we are working hard to figure out to reallocate those funds to support struggling families with infants and toddlers in our state, not just for the families who are our priority, but for our overall economy.

Tell us about your stakeholders.

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
We have a tiered stakeholder approach. We have our core team, which is made up of leaders from our organization, the Department of Health, the Department of Children and Family Services, as well as the Department of Education, the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, and Agenda for Children, the community Pritzker grantee. Jen Roberts from Agenda for Children has been on our state team since it began, to help us really understand the community-level piece of the work. We can make all these grand plans as a state level team and not be proximal to where the issues are, so it's been really helpful to have our community partners help us with that.

Additionally, we hope to have someone from Medicaid join our core team, which will assist us in thinking through the health supports and services. And one more member of our core team to be added is the new Early Childhood Policy Advisor from the Governor’s Office whois being funded through our Pritzker Children’s Initiative grant. The core team leads the work and then reaches out to our broader stakeholder group that is part of our Early Care and Education Commission. There are 30-35 members on that commission that includes leaders from business, economic development, providers, and parents.

How do you engage parents? How are you reaching parents who may not have had access to the internet even before the pandemic?

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
We are about to release our first family survey next week to help us really understand the needs of families related to early care and education. We also engage with grassroot partners that we have worked with in the past that have meaningful access to parents, to really get their voice. We want to make sure their voices and influence are included. We know that working with grassroot partners that have those relationships is the most effective and efficient way to do it because of their longstanding relationships in communities throughout the state.

Our survey will go out on Monday through each of the resource referral agencies throughout the state. And it will go out through at least three grassroots organizations and other advocacy partners throughout the state, and our state partners with agencies too.

What other ways are you supporting families of infants and toddlers and pregnant women who face significant barriers to support services?

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
Equity is embedded in all our work to ensure access to both early care and education and essential health, development, and social supports. Again, in a culturally rich and under-resourced state, we have to think outside-the-box related to not just racial and economic equity, but also geographic. If you talk to people in North Louisiana, they will say that their voices are not always heard. And then if you talk to people in South Louisiana, they will tell you the same thing.

The work of equity for our core team is deeply personal. It is essential - not just to our state, but to our stakeholders and to our partners - that we get this right because children deserve better. And we have got to make sure that families can access the types of supports and services that they need. How do we make sure that these families are absolutely getting what they need at the end of the day? Our infant mortality rates are terrible, particularly for women of color. We are grateful to be able to work with our Bureau of Family Health within the Department of Health that has the pulse of what is will take to ensure mommas and their babies are healthy.  

One of our initiatives as part of Pritzker is to pilot the Family Connects program, to get a more universal light-touch home visiting program going so that families have access to supports and services that could help detect potential issues that don’t support development in the long run. At the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children we spend our time in the early care and education world. But we're also making sure we're spending time on the health side, so that we can understand where the inequities are and where there are places to really root ourselves in the data and research to promote access to supports and services for optimal family outcomes.

What can you share about the relationship between state and community on the PN-3 work?

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
The Louisiana Policy Institute for Children led the planning grant for Louisiana, and then ultimately awarded the implementation grant. When Pritzker reached out to say it was going to offer community-level grants, we suggested Agenda for Children as it was well-positioned to do this work. As we developed a complete Pritzker implementation plan, it allowed us at the state level to understand the unique needs at the local level through our collaborative relationship with Agenda for Children.

But then it allowed the locals, like Jen Roberts and Kenny Francis at Agenda for Children, to understand the bridge between the state and local and how we can work together to make sure children have access to what they need. And so, from our perspective, these are our partners every day, if Pritzker was here or not, but it made a lot of sense for us to really deepen those relationships because we all want the best things for children and families. Jen and her team at Agenda for Children are spectacular. They're just really good thinkers. And so when we need to think deeply about something, we're going to pull them in anyway. But it's been really a joy, with the Pritzker work, to work hand-in-hand. If you were to look at their plan and ours, you could see how they dovetail together. There are different perspectives and we approach things differently, but the work dovetails and we support each other.

Are there anything else you would want your colleagues in other states and communities to know, or any advice you have for doing this work?

Louisiana Policy Institute for Children:
We have kept our Governor's Office a part of the conversations because we knew, as we built our plan, that we wanted to have a policy advisor at the highest level of government in our state. And so when we went to Governor John Bel Edwards, who was running for reelection at the time and then subsequently won again, and said, "This is what we want to do. We really want to support early childhood, not just early care and education, not just health, but early childhood. Can you help us do this?" He said yes. And his commitment - he can't put the money where he wants to and there are all kind of frustrations there -  but he and his staff have made a commitment to young children in our state because they understand deeply that this is the way Louisiana change how our state does business.

So, I would say for other states, keep in contact with your governor, your governor's office, keep in contact with your legislators. We have legislators on our Early Care and Education Commission who are deeply committed stakeholders. We couldn't do this work without them. We have to have the buy-in from our elected officials. We also have to have the buy-in from business and our economic developers. And that's what has helped us really change the trajectory of early care and education to be critically important to our state's economic growth. Now it's saying, health is also a part of that, development is part of that, socio-emotional development is part of that and helping to tell that story is critically important. Wherever we can plug in data and the research, we do because it is critical to make the immense need as objective as possible. This is where we've been able take a step towards something meaningful for our families in Louisiana.

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