Ohio Family and Children First – The Line in the Sand

“Our aim is to make an unprecedented commitment to one priority that I believe ranks above all others – the health and education of our children… The only way to do it is to pick one generation of children – draw a line in the sand – and say to all: ‘this is where it stops.’ Today, we draw that line” (1991 State of the State Address, Senator Voinovich).

Senator Voinovich made this promise to all of Ohio at his first State of the State address in 1991, and this promise was not one he made lightly. Rather, ensuring that all children were well cared for became one of the largest initiatives throughout his years as Governor. To achieve this goal, Senator Voinovich created the Ohio Family and Children First Council through an executive order in 1992 (Riffe, 1999). By 1994, the initiative became a statewide implementation with the goal of the OFCF Cabinet being, “A partnership of state and local government, communities, and families that enhance the well-being of Ohio’s children and families by building community capacity, strategically coordinating systems and services, and engaging and empowering families.” The multiple partnerships were essential to achieving the goal to life all children and family up, as supporting these individuals does not fall under one sphere.

One of the main actors in working to achieve this goal was Senator Voinovich’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Jacqueline Romer-Sensky. Romer-Sensky was charged to essentially take the challenge Senator Voinovich created and make it real for families all across Ohio; families that deal with incredibly different issues. Romer-Sensky, and the rest of her organizational team and key agency leaders, realized that dynamic and worked to involve a variety of actors: “Trying to lift children up is a multifaceted issue. It is not the domain of any one particular part of government. It’s also beyond government and the only way to tackle some of these really complex issues is to set a table where all of those different components are at the table, including the family’s voice.” To bring in all of these factors effectively, OFCF created councils across Ohio that worked within their specific communities to find out what families need and how to address these issues with the support from the Council at the state level. Together, these groups worked to achieve Senator Voinovich’s motto: “We need to work harder and smarter and do more with less. Together, we can do it.”

Much of this was able to occur because of Senator Voinovich’s passion for supporting children and his recognition that families face different challenges and may need differing types of support. Voinovich was up for the challenge and, as Romer-Sensky expressed about Senator Voinovich, “Ultimately, this is a guy that will do what he thinks is right… This was his passion and he just wanted this to happen. He cared about these kids.” Through the work of the councils, program partners, local groups, and families themselves, OFCF was able to make incredible achievements. The combined effort during the Voinovich Administration resulted reducing infant mortality, increasing the amount of adoptions by 59%, fully funding state Head Start and supporting the growth of publicly funded child care from 18,000 children to 82,000, as well as increased use of Medicaid waivers for home care for medically fragile families and increasing access to Individual Education Plans (JRS_GVV Reflection, 2016; Riffe, 1999). Supporting families and children has continued to be a priority in Ohio even after Senator Voinovich left the governor’s office and is an instrumental part of his legacy.

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