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Child abuse prevention and at-home care for seniors are latest services at risk due to shrinking state government (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

Even with the legislature adjourned, there seems to be no dearth of activity emanating from Oklahoma City. The State Supreme Court has set oral arguments on the constitutional challenge to the cigarette “fee” for August 8, to be heard by the entire court. I haven’t seen the pleadings in the case, but oral arguments are usually among the last things to happen before an appellate court makes its decision. This must mean the Court decided to assume original jurisdiction and rule on the case quickly. Given the importance of the funding to the recently-passed budget and the havoc that would be created if the fee were implemented, then held unconstitutional, it’s a good thing to get the ruling before the fee is set to go into effect on August 25th.

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Interested in disability advocacy? Apply for Partners in Policymaking (Guest post: Amy Smith)

by | June 15th, 2017 | Posted in Children and Families, Upcoming Events | Comments (1)

Amy Smith is a graduate student in Disability Studies, a proud graduate of both Partners in Policymaking and the OK Policy Summer Policy Institute, and is currently a research intern at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.  She lives in Ada with her husband and two of her four children who haven’t flown the coop yet.

2015 Partners in Policymaking class

In one of the few bright spots in an otherwise frustrating Legislative session, advocates for any number of organizations and causes were increasingly visible at the Capitol and statewide. Teams including Together Oklahoma and Let’s Fix This have mobilized advocates through grassroots coalitions and informational resources while groups such as the Oklahoma Education Association and Oklahoma Public Employees Association make noise at the Capitol. Similarly, disability advocates have become more visible through rallies and helping to pass legislation such as the ABLE Act and the Autism Insurance Reform Act.

Many of those disability advocates, myself included, came to the Capitol via Partners in Policymaking, an international program that teaches adults with disabilities, their family members, and the professionals who work with them the skills to become advocates who promote systems change. In Oklahoma, this nine-month program is operated by the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council. Partners students meet one weekend a month to complete a slate of classes on topics including advocacy and grassroots organizing, special education law, sexuality and relationships, guardianship and alternatives, the state and federal legislative process, serving on boards, leadership development, employment, assistive technology, and navigating state and federal service systems.

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Schools use food trucks to fight food insecurity during summer months

Maggie Den Harder is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute and a Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.

For Oklahoma families who are food-insecure, school meals can be a lifeline. Six in ten students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals at school. These meals offer solid nutrition while alleviating tight household budgets. But hunger doesn’t take a vacation during summer break, and although federal summer meal programs are available, participation in Oklahoma lags badly. However, some Oklahoma school districts have found success by building on a new distribution model: food trucks.

Mobile summer meal delivery isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that’s growing. In Alabama, Mobile County Schools has converted four buses to food trucks with an eat-in area so students can eat in air conditioning. In San Marcos, Texas, the district converted a bus that delivers lunch food to high-need areas. School districts in Delaware, Florida, and Connecticut successfully used food trucks to distribute food to students over the summer, too. With the help of local community partners like food banks and libraries, more students across the nation are gaining access to schools meals during the summer months.

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Extended family leave for new parents would boost economy while addressing some of Oklahoma’s worst health rankings

Too many Oklahoma parents face an impossible choice – continue to work full-time and miss precious opportunities to bond with a new child, or leave work and put their finances and career at risk. Oklahomans shouldn’t face this choice.  New parents should be able to take leave to bond with and care for a new child without putting their family’s future at risk.

Senate Bill 549, which has passed the Senate and is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow in the House Business, Commerce, and Tourism Committee, is a good first step in the modernization of family leave in Oklahoma. [UPDATE: SB 549 passed committee with a 14-0 vote and will next go to the full House.] Under federal law, most American workers are allowed 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and several states have provided further paid or unpaid leave. SB 549 would extend that to 20 weeks of unpaid leave for Oklahoma’s state employees.

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DHS Director: Oklahoma budget cut scenarios range “from the terrible to the unthinkable”

OKDHS Director Ed Lake

Unless lawmakers find new revenues to close their budget shortfall, Oklahoma is looking at unprecedented cuts to the most basic services of state government, including those for the most vulnerable seniors, children, and people with disabilities. Even before next year’s budget, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) will run out of money in May to pay for in-home care of 25,000 seniors and individuals with severe disabilities unless the Legislature acts quickly to provide supplemental funds.

Yesterday, OKDHS Director Ed Lake sent a message to all employees of the agency stating that further cuts would threaten the elimination of entire programs serving very vulnerable adults and children. The cuts could even undo the progress made under court order to improve our child welfare system. Here is Director Lake’s message in full:

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Sonya’s story as a child of incarcerated parents

sad girl

Sonya (her name has been changed due to the sensitive nature of her story) grew up as a child of incarcerated parents and went on to be Valedictorian of her high school class, student council president, and drum major of the band. She is currently taking time off from college and works full-time at a bank. She spoke to OK Policy intern Chelsea Fiedler about her experience growing up. Chelsea recently shared her own story as the daughter of Oklahoma corrections officers.

Chelsea: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What was your childhood generally like and what is your life like now?

Sonya: For as long as I could remember, I was moving between my father, my mother, my grandparents, my other grandparents, vice versa. I switched elementary schools a few times before part of the custody agreement between my grandparents and DHS was that I would stay in the same public school, and so that solidified when I was in fourth grade. Growing up was a lot of not really knowing when everything was set in stone, but always kind of hoping that I was finally settled…

Chelsea: Were both of your parents incarcerated? And if so, was it at the same time?

Sonya: Both of my parents were incarcerated multiple times. Several of those overlapped in one way or another. Not that they spent the same term in prison, but there was a lot of overlap especially from the ages of three to eleven… Until the death of my mother, at which point it was just a matter of my father being in and out of prison.

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Claims that SQ 777 will boost food security are hard to swallow


Photo by Yes On 777 campaign.

Note: This is an expanded and revised version of a column that appeared in the Journal Record.

Vote Yes on State Question 777 or else more Oklahoma children and seniors will go hungry?

That’s the highly misleading message that supporters of the so-called Right to Farm amendment are asking Oklahoma voters to swallow.

The campaign for this amendment is being sponsored primarily by the Farm Bureau and other major agribusiness associations. If approved in November, SQ 777 would entrench in the state Constitution the right to engage in far-ranging agricultural practices. The Oklahoma Legislature and local governments would not be allowed to make any new laws regulating the use of agricultural technology, livestock procedures, or ranching practices unless they could be shown to serve a “compelling state  interest” and meet a legal standard of “strict scrutiny.”

Strict scrutiny is the very highest level of constitutional restriction — one that’s currently reserved for laws that discriminate on the basis of race or deprive people of fundamental rights like free speech, gun ownership, or freedom of religion.

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Does Oklahoma rely too much on foster care to prevent child abuse and neglect?

by | October 13th, 2016 | Posted in Children and Families | Comments (2)

Tara Grigson was an OK Policy summer intern. She is a psychology and Spanish major at the University of Tulsa and previously worked as a Mission Impact Intern at YWCA Tulsa.

Nearly 11,000 Oklahoma children have been removed from their families and placed in foster care. This fact has many implications for child development. Removing children from their families, no matter how necessary, can be traumatic. But when abuse and neglect can be prevented while still allowing children to stay with their families, children tend to have better health and better life outcomes. Alternative responses that help low-risk families to keep their children are linked to lower rates of future abuse or neglect.

In 2015, 11.4 out of every 1,000 Oklahoma kids were in foster care — a rate that is second highest in the nation, behind only West Virginia, and more than twice the national average. Oklahoma also ranks high for sending very young children to foster care — in 2014, 41 percent of Oklahoma kids in foster care were age 1 to 5, also the second highest percentage in the nation. That’s troubling, because healthy development during these years often sets the course for future development. When a child is removed from their family so young, they may experience disordered attachment and serious challenges to their cognitive, social, physical, and emotional development.

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SNAP is working to feed Oklahoma’s Children

Hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma families are able to put enough food on the table because of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But research increasingly shows that it accomplishes much more than that.

Growing up in poverty is shown to have serious, long-term effects on children — especially during the earliest years of a child’s life. Unfortunately, already-high poverty rates in Oklahoma are highest among Oklahoma children. Parents of young children tend to earn less because they are early in their careers, and because child care has become increasingly unaffordable, they often must leave a job or cut back on their hours to care for their kids.

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Oklahoma’s long journey to fix the child welfare system grows longer (Capitol Updates)

by | September 23rd, 2016 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Children and Families | Comments (0)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can find past Capitol Updates archived  on his website.

Recently, DHS and the advocacy group representing the plaintiffs in a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of children in our Oklahoma foster care system agreed to extend the settlement agreement reached in 2012. The agreement was to have ended in 5 years with the successful implementation of the “Pinnacle Plan”, an ambitious set of reforms to better protect and nurture children in foster care. It had become apparent that the gains made in the past 4 years were not enough to meet the anticipated 5-year deadline. The alternative to extending the timeline would presumably have been to return to court, call off the settlement, and resume litigation.

It’s not surprising that 5 years was not enough to “fix” the child welfare system. In fact, it has been apparent from early on that the timeline was too ambitious and the funding was insufficient. In addition to money appropriated specifically for the Pinnacle Plan, DHS has had to divert funds away from services to others to supplement the reforms. And they have still fallen behind schedule. But it’s not all money. Figuring out how to protect and nurture children with multiple challenges, from mental and physical health to neglect and sexual, physical and emotional abuse issues is complex. And the results are often unpredictable. If DHS knew when they started what they know now they could probably have accomplished more sooner, but they didn’t.

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