This Oldham County teen may be Kentucky's youngest lobbyist

Kiera Dunk poses in front of the Kentucky State Capitol on Thursday, March 14, 2024.
Kiera Dunk poses in front of the Kentucky State Capitol on Thursday, March 14, 2024.
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While many teenagers visit Kentucky's State Capitol during legislative sessions, they generally come in groups and make a solo appearance.

Not Kiera Dunk.

The North Oldham High School freshman has made the hour-long trip to Frankfort dozens of times, and her passion for advocacy led her to write her own bill — one that increased penalties for child abuse — and get it passed just before turning 13.

Kiera has met with some of the state's most powerful politicians to garner their support. She's successfully advocated for the passage of two bills, and she's working on a third.

House Speaker David Osborne said he's never encountered anyone like her.

"It's unusual to find someone that age who really likes to dig into the details — not just the policy itself but to do the work to make it pass," Osborne said of Kiera.

"She is certainly wise beyond her years," he said. "There's a lot of lobbyists that could learn from her."

To Kiera, though, there's nothing all that special about what she is doing. When asked why she spends hours researching policy, requesting meetings with politicians, to whom she brings cookies, and testifying during committee hearings, she doesn't see an alternative.

"If you feel passionate about something, you should do it," she said matter-of-factly.

Kiera's advocacy work goes back to 2018 when she and her mom started going to the Capitol with the Kentucky Home Birth Coalition. The grassroots group had been fighting to allow midwives to become licensed, and Kiera was eager to help.

She was there the day former Gov. Matt Bevin signed the law in 2019, and she even jokingly told him she would have his job one day, her mom, Brandi Dunk, said. On the way home after that victory, she started to cry.

"She was like, 'It's done now. We can’t go to Frankfort now," Dunk recalled.

"I was like, 'No, if you find something you want to advocate for that you're passionate about, then we can do that." From then, "she was constantly just thirsting for knowledge. She just kept asking questions and wanted to understand the process."

Kiera Dunk poses with former LMPD lieutenant Joyce Keeley who presented her the “Shine a Light Award” on Thursday, March 14, 2024 at the State Capitol.
Kiera Dunk poses with former LMPD lieutenant Joyce Keeley who presented her the “Shine a Light Award” on Thursday, March 14, 2024 at the State Capitol.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted Kiera's participation in the next two legislative sessions, though she watched them on KETV. By 2022, she'd honed in on her passion: children. She began advocating for Kami's Law — a bill named after a family friend who'd been physically abused as an infant. When Kiera learned the man responsible served less than five years, she decided something had to change.

Ed Massey, now a former state representative, sponsored Kiera's bill, which increased the penalties for those who abuse someone under age 12. The bill won approval in 2022.

"I was just so excited to have the opportunity to work with someone with the energy, desire and intellect to work through the process," Massey said of Kiera, noting how she didn't want to just write the bill and get it filed, but kept pushing for its passage by gaining more sponsors and testifying before both judiciary committees.

"Some people in the legislative world — they just go and vote," Massey said. "They are reactive, not proactive. To see a person be this proactive at such a young age is exciting."

Last year Kiera went to Rep. James Tipton about an issue in the state's Read to Succeed Act, which allowed Kentucky school districts to choose whether to use a structured literacy reading curriculum.

She testified on the House floor about why the act needed a one-word amendment — changing may to shall — which was ultimately approved. Now, all districts must align their instruction with structured literacy practices by the start of the next school year.

Ahead of this legislative session, Kiera wanted to focus on ways to prevent child abuse so it doesn't harm children like Kami and Kyan Higgins Jr., who her next bill is named after.

Acknowledging that harsher punishments don't always serve as a strong deterrent for abusers, Kiera said she "wanted to help kids by creating a law that would be more preventative and hopefully remove kids from harmful situations before it was too late," she wrote in a Kentucky Youth Advocates blog post.

Kyan was 10 years old when his mom killed him in their Louisville home. The brutality of his killing made headlines, but what was missing from those stories was a fact that Kiera later uncovered: There were signs Kyan was in harm's way.

A common correlation "most people don't know about," Kiera explained, is that in 88% of confirmed physical child abuse cases, pets had also been abused, one study found.

In the 18 months leading up to Kyan's death, animal control officers had been at his house two dozen times.

With this in mind, Kyan's Law would require that animal control officers have additional training to recognize signs of abuse.

“I think this is another important piece of legislation to ensure we are getting kids out of dangerous situations sooner rather than later," Kiera said. "Maybe if this was in place beforehand, maybe Kyan would still be alive.”

Her bill wasn't taken up during this session despite six meetings with legislators in just one day, but Kiera isn't discouraged. This year was a budget year, along with an election year, she explained, so she's confident it'll see success next year.

Outside of her advocacy work, Kiera is on the track team for North Oldham High, where she's looking forward to taking a pre-law course next year. She's into Anime and likes going to the mall and having sleepovers with her friends, though she said they "aren't really interested in politics."

She's becoming a regular at events focused on children's advocacy work, most recently speaking at a Kosair for Kids benefit dinner.

She's thankful for the success she's had in Frankfort and hopes it will help other kids.

She's also hoping it inspires other people to stand up for their beliefs.

"If I could get a law passed before I was 15, I think other people can make changes too," she said.

Contact Krista Johnson at kjohnson3@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: This Oldham County teen may be Kentucky's youngest lobbyist