Idaho's First Lady Advocates for Children
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
First Lady of Idaho Patricia Kempthorne says that if being the governor's spouse had a job description, hers would read "ambassador for families and children."
Kempthorne, who grew up in Boise, Idaho, and has been married for 26 years to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, former Boise mayor and U.S. Senator, has dedicated the public part of her life to speaking on behalf of families and children.
"As the ambassador for families and children, I have to speak to issues that are sometimes difficult to speak about but need to be addressed," Kempthorne told Stateline.org.
Kempthorne, the mother of two college age children, Heather and Jeff, describes herself as a devoted community volunteer trying to find solutions to the challenges of modern day child-rearing, like affording childcare and balancing work and family.
A graduate of the University of Idaho, Kempthorne has owned a private consulting business addressing family and work-life issues, co-founded the Family and Workplace Consortium in Idaho and she currently co-chairs the Governor's Coordinating Council for Families and Children and the presidential Advisory Commission on Drug-Free Communities.
Since becoming the first lady of Idaho in 1998, Kempthorne said she has turned her attention to mental health and substance abuse issues like depression, teen suicide and underage drinking.
Earlier this month, she testified before the U.S. Senate to urge lawmakers to make childhood drinking prevention a national health priority.
Speaking on behalf of Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, an advocacy group of 34 current governors' spouses and 11 previous first ladies, Kempthorne said that alcohol is the number-one illegal drug used by children age 9-15.
"We expend tremendous energy ensuring that (children) are vaccinated, use infant car seats and have access to educational opportunities and health care. Yet there is a serious disconnect when it comes to childhood drinking," Kempthorne said in her testimony.
Kempthorne grew up in a household where alcohol was prevalent because her father was a major distributor of wine and distilled spirits. She said she learned at a very early age that alcohol was not meant for children, but she said that message is much less clear in our society today.
"The media message was different then. Attitudes today are that everyone is doing it, it's a rite of passage," Kempthorne said.
Kempthorne said that nearly forty percent of kids who start drinking before the age of 15 develop alcohol abuse or dependence at some point in their lives. Recent studies also show that those children perform worse in school and remember less than non-drinkers.
"It's been proven that the longer you can get kids to wait to use alcohol the less likely they are to become an alcoholic," Kempthorne said.
The Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free asked the Senate Subcommittee on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services to increase federal funding for alcohol abuse research, prevention and treatment and to require federal surveys on alcohol use and attitudes to collect data on children as young as age 9.
In Idaho, underage drinking is closely associated with suicide. Nearly 30 percent of suicides and attempted suicides by children can be attributed to alcohol, Kempthorne said.
Kempthorne said she hopes to see a 25 percent reduction in suicide rates for juveniles before her husband's term is up by reducing underage drinking and by strengthening statewide suicide intervention efforts.
To further her goal, Kempthorne helped organized a program called Red Flags Idaho, an intervention program that helps parents and educators recognize the early signs of mental illness and suicide.
"Parents, teachers and counselors are the ones who can catch some of these problems where suicide might have been thought of as a solution," Kempthorne said.
But being the governor's wife doesn't mean her projects receive financial backing from the state legislature, Kempthorne said. Idaho ranks near the bottom in the nation for mental health funding, and Kempthorne has had little luck improving that status.
"In a state like Idaho there's not a lot of money that's put into mental health programs. We've found a lot of federal money, but no state money," Kempthorne said.