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 sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.
The Tulsa World began a series on child abuse Sunday that reminds us the problem in Oklahoma is getting worse, not better. Last year 15,252 cases of child abuse or neglect were confirmed by the Department of Human Services. That’s compared with 7,248 cases in 2010, and the number has increased every year between 2010 and 2015. Foster care placements have hovered at about 10,500 to 11,000 children since 2013. The article identifies factors such as mental health, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, lack of education, economic stress and generational poverty as contributors to the problem.
The takeaway for me from this article is that policy matters. The policies needed to effectively protect our children get made inside the Capitol in Oklahoma City and in the buildings surrounding it where the executive and judicial departments of state government do much of their work. The people there establish the laws, the guidelines and the resources that are going to be used by the thousands of people like physicians, therapists, caretakers, policemen, prosecutors, judges and others directly serving the victims and potential victims of child abuse.
How do we connect the policy with what’s happening in real life? Here’s some of what’s going to happen in the next 4 weeks in Oklahoma City that will affect what happens to the children next year. The Department of Mental Health’s budget will likely be cut significantly. These are the resources needed to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment to potential perpetrators of child abuse that can help them find another way to cope with their depression, anger and frustration other than taking it out on the nearest and weakest irritant: a child. For many people and their children, the resources will not be there.
The Department of Health budget will continue receiving cuts. The Commissioner of Health has said if that happens he will have to eliminate the child abuse prevention programs intended to teach families at risk for child abuse the health and parenting skills they’ll need to cope with the responsibilities of parenthood along with the other challenges they are facing. The governor will decide whether to sign a bill that criminalizes doctors for performing a constitutionally-protected abortion while scientifically accurate sex education in schools will not be encouraged or funded by statute. Education, the Department of Human Services, and the Office of Juvenile Affairs will all likely receive cuts limiting or destroying some of their social service and poverty programs.
It’s too early to know if legislators will find a way to fund the proposed Medicaid Rebalancing Act. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but it will cost $100 million to implement, which will likely have to come from a revenue increase. That’s the sticking point. Importantly, this is the program that could provide medical and mental health treatment to the thousands of boyfriends, step-fathers, babysitters and others that next year might potentially murder or abuse a child. I’m not blaming, just connecting the dots. Policy matters.