Article updated at 11:39 p.m. Thursday, April 28:
Douglas County suffers from an elder care crisis, according to members of the nonprofit organization Justice Matters.
Senior care service providers can’t recruit and retain enough qualified staff to provide quality care to seniors in Douglas County who need it.
At the Justice Matters 2022 Action Assembly on Thursday night, Bernice Jones shared with hundreds of attendees the difficulties she faces as a senior living at home without adequate in-home support.
“I am at a point where it’s becoming really difficult for me to move around my house. I must use my walker, and unfortunately, I have fallen several times. The last thing I want to do is to move into a long-term care facility. I don’t think I could afford to do that, even if I wanted to.”
Jones, a member of Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church and the Justice Matters Elder Care Committee, said in her personal testimony she can’t move around easily and doesn’t always have the energy to complete all the necessary in-home tasks by herself.
“I need someone to come in and help me. I have reached out to several agencies and I have not received any help.”
For months, Jones’ name has sat on a waiting list. Meanwhile, her grandson stays with her to provide support, but it’s not enough. She worries about falling again.
“I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Janine Gracy, executive director of Trinity In-Home Care, offered the employer’s perspective. She said in 2021, the agency employed 85 caregivers providing 43,000 hours of care to more than 70 clients, most of whom qualify for Medicaid.
But, Gracy said, Medicaid reimbursement rates are so low that Trinity loses an average of $2.50 per hour, per client in reimbursement. That added up to a loss of more than $100,000 last year.
“Because the reimbursement rates are so low, we have a waiting list of clients and not enough caregivers.”
Trinity’s waiting list has grown to 39 clients – the longest it’s ever been. Gracy said Trinity would need to hire 45 new caregivers to meet the need, but recruiting and retaining qualified employees is another challenge the agency faces.
While new funding such as COVID relief funds have helped, Gracy said, that’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Justice Matters members called on Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly for leadership to collaborate with local health care providers in developing a plan to incentivize more people to work in senior care jobs in the county.
Kelly’s connections to the College and Career Center and the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County, as well as his position as Douglas County Commissioner, could help forge successful pathways with workforce development stakeholders, said Justice Matters spokesperson Margie Dyck, a member of First Presbyterian Church.
Although Kelly was out of town on business and unable to attend, he did provide written statements confirming his commitment to collaborate. Kelly said he would meet with Justice Matters representatives by June 30 to draft a list of community organizations to invite into the process.
Here’s an update on the other ongoing issues Justice Matters had previously prioritized for its grassroots work.
Alternatives to incarceration
Representing the Alternatives to Incarceration Committee, Deb Engstrom (First United Methodist Church) and Joanna Harader (Peace Mennonite Church) sought a commitment from local law enforcement to address over-incarceration in two main areas – cite and release practices and rescheduling dates for failure-to-appear in court warrants.
Specifically, Justice Matters has asked local law enforcement leaders when an arrest warrant for failure to appear is discovered during a routine stop that the court date automatically be rescheduled and the person released rather than being arrested and booked into jail. Cite and release refers to officers issuing citations in lieu of arrests for minor crimes.
Harader said a representative of the Vera Institute of Justice recently visited Lawrence and met with community leaders and stakeholders, including Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister and Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart.
“Our visitor reminded us that mass incarceration really is a local issue, that incarceration numbers are driven not by big prisons but by community jails by local sheriff and police departments in towns like Lawrence.”
Armbrister was on hand Thursday. He said he would take the lead on initiating a collaborative effort with District Court judges to establish a failure to appear rescheduling policy and cite-and-release practices, along with tracking their effectiveness and exceptions. Armbrister said he would also commit to providing quarterly updates about the efforts to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Harader said Lockhart had originally planned to attend but was not present. She read a written statement from Lockhart, part of which read, “I respect the work that your group is doing. I am committed to helping where I can with reducing disparity in law enforcement contacts in our community.”
Harader cited specific commitments Lockhart made to provide data to Justice Matters regarding police activity, to continue examining policies to ensure they are procedurally just and fair for all, to examine data and analyze it for ways to minimize disparities, and to share results and data with Justice Matters and the public.
Personal testimony was shared by Jeremy McClain, who previously experienced homelessness after suffering a traumatic brain injury.
“I finished my master’s work, started a career as a field biologist and was engaged to be married, when a work-related brain injury changed everything. It drastically affected my physical, mental health, my personality and my capability for self-care.”
McClain told attendees housing is key to positive change.
“None of the other steps will be successful without the stability, safety and sense of self-worth that comes with having a home.”
John Krehbiel, Justice Matters Ending Homelessness Committee member, told the crowd he had “every confidence in the world’ that Douglas County could achieve functional zero for chronic homelessness with the Built for Zero model that city and county leaders had pledged commitments to at last year’s annual assembly.
“Reaching functional zero is a work in progress. And in order to get there, as we have seen in other cities across the country that ended chronic homelessness, we must have a braided system of services and funding that makes homelessness continuously rare and very, very brief. We must have a comprehensive plan that is created and embraced by all stakeholders.”
Douglas County Commission Chair Shannon Reid joined Krehbiel on stage and recommitted to that effort. Pending the results of a homelessness needs assessment in May, Justice Matters will collaborate with leaders to establish a comprehensive plan by the end of this year that outlines measures needed to reach functional zero homelessness.
Restorative practices in schools
Teachers and paraprofessionals in the Lawrence school district’s four middle and two high schools have been trained in restorative practices – an alternative approach to punitive discipline for misbehavior. The district has also tracked and reported publicly equity data related to racial disparities in school suspensions.
Although the organization commends those practices, Justice Matters leaders expressed concerns about reports from families, students and teachers regarding “inconsistent messaging and use of restorative practices in our schools.”
Lawrence High School junior Caitlin Sand, a Justice Matters Neighborhood Network member, told attendees the Justice Matters Restorative Practices in Schools Committee had reached out several times – unsuccessfully – to schedule a meeting with Cynthia Johnson, executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging in Lawrence Public Schools.
Sand shared frustration about a “lack of communication” from the district’s leaders and “getting brushed off over and over again.”
School board member Andrew Nussbaum told Sand he appreciated the student activism.
Nussbaum, who holds a master’s degree in conflict transformation and restorative justice, said he was committed to centering families and young people in restorative justice principles.
“I’m so excited to communicate and talk with, and advocate for this topic,” Nussbaum said. “In fact, I’m in an equity council advisory meeting next Tuesday, with Dr. Cynthia Johnson and many others, and I’ll make sure to bring it up then.”
Note: A name spelling in this article has been corrected.