Lawmakers OK bill aimed at reversing high child abuse rates

A separate bill designed to combat the state's nursing shortage advanced

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers took aim Wednesday at reversing the state’s chronically high rates for child abuse and neglect, passing a sweeping measure to bolster prevention and oversight efforts.

The bill won 94-0 final passage in the House, sending the measure to Gov. Andy Beshear.

Child welfare advocates hailed the action, saying the legislation advances efforts to confront the Bluegrass State’s high national standing for its rates of child abuse and neglect.

“This legislation is a necessary next step in Kentucky’s efforts to fundamentally strengthen and reform the child welfare system to best serve children,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Lawmakers also advanced a bill intended to overcome the state’s nursing shortage by boosting enrollment in nursing schools and luring out-of-state nurses into the state’s workforce. The House passed the measure 93-1. The bill returns to the Senate, which will consider House changes.

Other measures winning House passage Wednesday would toughen drunken driving laws and require school districts to establish a policy for Kentucky students to silently pray, meditate or reflect in class. Those measures still need Senate action.

In the Senate, a bill intended to give bourbon tourism another boost won final passage.

The flurry of action comes as the Republican-led legislature heads into the home stretch of its 60-day session. Wednesday marked the 54th day of the session that ends in mid-April. Lawmakers have crucial decisions to make on budget, taxation, education and other high-profile issues. They’ll take a break starting next week to give the governor time to review bills sent to his desk.

The child welfare bill sent to Beshear is an ambitious attempt to keep families intact.

A key portion of the measure would expand the use of family preservation services to work with families when children are considered at “moderate risk” of being removed from the home because of abuse or neglect. Current law limits such aid to families at “imminent risk.” The goal is that the early intervention would head off potential abuse or neglect, the bill’s supporters said.

House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade on Wednesday called it a “huge shift in policy and practice.”

“This will keep children at home and in their families more often,” he said.

Republican Sen. Julie Raque Adams, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the prevention efforts in the measure will be “so important for so many vulnerable Kentucky children.”

“We look forward to the governor signing it into law so we can get right to work, correcting a negative trend that has tarnished our state for too long,” she said.

Meanwhile, the bill aimed at helping cure the nursing shortage moved within one vote of final passage after clearing the House. The bill would lift enrollment limits in nursing programs meeting specified standards. And it would accelerate licensing for out-of-state nurses to work in Kentucky.

Kentucky has faced a nursing shortage for years but the problem worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, Beshear declared the shortage to be an emergency. The governor pointed to projections that Kentucky will need more than 16,000 additional nurses by 2024 to help fill gaps caused by retirements and people leaving the profession.

Another bill winning House passage Wednesday would create a loan relief program for healthcare professionals. The measure, which heads to the Senate, is seen as a tool to recruit and retain more healthcare professionals, especially in rural and medically underserved areas.

Other bills voted on Wednesday would:

—Boost the bourbon industry by fully authorizing private barrel selections that have grown in popularity among consumers looking for unique bourbons. The bill also would allow distillers to sell exclusive bottles in their distillery gift shops. And each distillery operating a retail gift shop could open one satellite tasting room in any Kentucky location where liquor sales are allowed.

Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, called the bill “another bold step in elevating bourbon tourism.” The measure heads to the governor.

—Require school districts to establish a policy for a moment of silence or reflection at the start of each day in all public schools. Having passed the House, the bill goes to the Senate.

—Toughen the penalty for people convicted of a third drunken driving offense within a 10-year period. Such third offenses would become a felony. The House-passed bill goes to the Senate.

 

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