Q&A with child and families advocate Siman Qaasim of Children’s Action Alliance

This fall, Siman Qaasim (SIH-min KAH-sim) took the reins at Children’s Action Alliance — an Arizona nonprofit that advocates for family- and child-friendly public policies. Born in Somalia, Qaasim moved to Mesa as a second-grader. Her career has taken her from running a small community center that helped Somalis adjust to life in America, to a health and safety job in the Bahamas, to international policy work in Washington, D.C., and back to Arizona.

Qaasim ran the Office of School Health and Wellness Initiatives and the Office of Health Promotion and Education at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health before joining CCA as its director of health policy. In recent years, her work led to key victories at the state legislature and Congress — including protecting KidsCare for 35,000 children in Arizona and building advocacy efforts to protect the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid coverage.

Qaasim shares how she’s growing into her new role, what the nonprofit’s current legislative priorities are, and how she balances the job with having four teenagers at home.

How has life changed since you became president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance? It has been a whirlwind — very busy as I try to balance my home with four children and my husband and work life! But it has been incredibly exciting, too. I feel that I am learning new things every day and getting more comfortable in this leadership role. I’ve enjoyed talking with partners and community members and doing good work for children and families in Arizona, especially as we are in the midst of the legislative session. There really isn’t any other place I’d rather be right now than at this organization.

What has you most hopeful and/or concerned about the new legislative session that is underway? We have a full list of legislative priorities this session, all of which involve health, education and security of Arizona children and families. Just a few:

  • We have concerns the legislature [may try] funding online learning products targeted at preschool-aged children. It’s probably one of the more concerning proposals we’ve run into in some time. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Pediatrics) found that any screen time in very young children is not only unhelpful, it’s detrimental to their development. There are other ways we can and should be spending public monies — on programs that are proven to work.
  • We support the Department of Economic Security’s request to use $30 million in childcare funds to help low-income working parents cover the cost of childcare, so they can go to work.
  • We want to see sustainable funding for public K-12 schools. The state has the money right now; let’s do it while revenues are in good shape.
  • We want the legislature to provide kinship caregivers the same resources they [give] licensed foster care providers. So many kinship caregivers — grandparents and other relatives — have stepped up and taken in children whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t for whatever reason (illness, addiction, homelessness, etc.). Yet, they are provided few resources from the state while licensed foster families are given much more financial assistance. We all know how expensive it is to make sure kids’ needs are met — that they have shoes that fit, clothes that keep them comfortable and enough nutritious food to eat. Kinship caregivers have been shouldering the cost on their own for too long, and we see so many of them who had retired who have no choice but go back to work or sell their homes to buy bigger ones with more space for the kids.

Arizona has the third highest rate of uninsured kids in the country (according to a Georgetown University report), with the number of uninsured Arizona children jumping by 10 percent between 2016 and 2018. Why is this happening, and what can be done? It’s a disturbing trend. Arizona and the rest of the country had been making major progress. Many children had health coverage when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was implemented. But just recently, the numbers of uninsured kids have started to creep up. There are a few factors at play. One is that many ACA policies that helped families find affordable insurance were rolled back. Also, changes to immigration laws — particularly around the use of public benefits.

There is so much confusion and fear created by anti-immigration rhetoric, such as the “public charge” rule, that families who are legally here and are eligible for Medicaid or CHIP have withdrawn their children from coverage. We at CAA have been working to get reliable and factual information to parents so they enroll their eligible children in health plans through their employers, the ACA marketplace, Medicaid (AHCCCS), or KidsCare. Kids who are healthy and can have access to a doctor and dentist when they need it are more likely to do well in school and become happier, more economically successful adults.

I understand you’re passionate about improving access to dental care for moms. Why? There is a lot of research showing that oral health has a great impact on overall health, particularly during pregnancy, which is why pregnant women are told by their obstetricians to take good care of their teeth. Periodontal disease can be more prevalent during pregnancy, and women with untreated dental issues are at risk of having premature or low-birth weight babies. When moms-to-be have access to oral health care, their babies benefit. We want to see the legislature include oral health care for pregnant women participating in AHCCCS so they are more likely to have healthy babies.

Affordable childcare options is another issue CAA focuses on. Is access to quality childcare improving in Arizona? It is, but slowly. We worked with partners and lawmakers last year to get the state to authorize $58 million in federal dollars to be used to eliminate the waiting list for low-income working families to access child care subsidies, as well as raise reimbursement rates for childcare providers. Arizona is still far behind in how much providers are reimbursed — only at 25 percent of market rate — but the legislature has the opportunity to authorize another $30 million in federal monies so the Department of Economic Security can continue to bring reimbursement rates up and provide assistance to more working families. We don’t want families trying to make their way up the economic ladder to choose between going to work and placing their child in a safe, quality environment.

In 2000, measles was considered eradicated in the United States. In 2019, more than 1,200 individual cases of measles were confirmed in 31 states, including Arizona, and vaccination rates are declining. What are your thoughts on this, and what can we do as a society? Arizona is losing critical community-level protection against really scary diseases. In many parts of the state, we no longer have “herd immunity,” because our vaccination rates have fallen below the threshold that protects those who can’t get vaccinated, such as young babies, pregnant women and people receiving chemotherapy. We are seeing more parents choosing not to vaccinate their children, and we have the most lax laws in the nation around immunization requirements. We are advocating against any efforts at the legislature to compromise the public health and are working with our partners to get good, solid information out to families.

It’s a big election year. Any advice for parents who want to be informed voters on Nov. 3? Yes! Read and absorb as much information as possible about candidates and stay informed with us. We send out a questionnaire to all legislative and statewide candidates for office and ask about their positions on a variety of issues that affect Arizona’s children and families. Get registered at azchildren.org if you aren’t already, and most importantly, VOTE!

On Twitter, you call yourself a “health policy nerd, proud mom, wife, Somali-American.” Tell us a little about your kids and family (you have four teenagers!) and any secrets for work-life balance. I will tell you once I get there! Actually, I am on my way to figuring out all the life hacks to finding time to relax and enjoy myself and the family during my time off. I have a great executive assistant who has done a fantastic job of helping me organize and prioritize in the office so I can focus on being present when I’m not working. The good thing about having older children at home is that if I have to attend an event later in the evening or on the weekend, they can help out. My husband, Michael [Dr. Michael Robert, Superintendent of the Osborn School District] is my rock. His support has been tremendous, and I cannot imagine taking on this challenge without him!

I understand you moved to Arizona in second grade, and have lived and worked globally. Where did you attend school? I began my Arizona public education journey in the Mesa Public Schools at Helen Keller School. I graduated from South Mountain High School from the dance magnet. I went onto to New York to pursue a dance career after high school.

What do you like to do when you’re not working? I enjoy gardening. I haven’t had as much time as I would like to spend doing it recently, but I usually have a vegetable patch growing tomatoes, herbs, and carrots. Lately, my 15-year-old daughter got me on the Tik Tok app — very entertaining!

What would like to add? I hope that anyone reading this recognizes that you don’t have to be a policy wonk or a politician to translate your passion into change. Just check out the website of an organization you believe in and sign up for its alerts. Your voice truly matters to lawmakers. Just call your legislator or congressperson and leave a voicemail about something — anything — you care about. It’s practically like therapy!