Note: April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Each year, leaders from across Oklahoma — including the governor, state agencies, and nonprofits — have declared April as Child Abuse Prevention Month in order to bring attention to the issue and make children a priority. When it comes to child maltreatment, neglect is the most pervasive form because it can occur unintentionally due to a lack of resources. Historically, interventions to decrease child maltreatment focus on services such as parenting education and an overreliance on the child welfare system. However, when it comes to providing meaningful solutions to stopping child maltreatment, Oklahoma should focus on addressing poverty, which is intrinsically linked with child maltreatment, particularly neglect. If Oklahoma leaders really want to make children a priority in this state, then improving economic stability for their families is the first step.
Child maltreatment in Oklahoma is overwhelmingly neglect
When it comes to child maltreatment in Oklahoma, neglect is the most prevalent form with 78 percent of substantiated cases involving some form of neglect. In Oklahoma, child neglect is defined as the “failure or omission to provide a child adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, protection, supervision, or special care made necessary by the physical or mental condition of the child.” This broad definition allows for significant flexibility in its application and greater likelihood for undeserving families to be punished or separated. It also becomes critical to distinguish poverty as a cause of neglect instead of poverty itself being neglect. Poverty alone does not mean that a parent lacks the knowledge or desire to care for their children; it does, however, create challenges that we should want to help parents overcome in order to keep every child in Oklahoma safe, healthy, and thriving.
The limited economic resources and opportunities available to many Oklahoma families force them to make hard decisions that could be perceived as maltreatment. For example, if a family is struggling to pay bills and the water is cut off, under the definition of the law, this could be construed as neglect. Poverty can also contribute to neglect indirectly. Parents who struggle with their mental health due to financial stressors and the pressure to provide every day necessities can find it harder to tend to their child’s social and emotional needs or recognize when their safety is at risk. In all of these instances, neglect would not be occurring if the family had not been experiencing poverty.
Improving families’ economic security would decrease Oklahoma’s high rates of child maltreatment
Numerous studies have shown that improving economic security can significantly reduce child abuse and neglect because children living in low-income families are at greater risk for maltreatment. Eliminating child abuse in the state is a two-fold approach: 1) ensuring families know how to meet the needs of their children and 2) equipping every community with the resources to meet the basic needs of the families living within them. At a minimum, this includes affordable housing, good paying jobs, robust child care, high quality education programs, and access to food and health care. However, for far too many Oklahomans these essentials are out of reach. One in five Oklahoma children are growing up in poverty, which gives parents fewer resources to foster their children’s development. Living in poverty also makes parents more prone to severe stress and depression, all of which can interfere with effective parenting.
Research shows that providing families with economic supports is a primary prevention strategy. Simply increasing the minimum wage has been shown to reduce reports of child maltreatment. A strong Earned Income Tax Credit, which is targeted tax relief for working families, has a demonstrated track record of reducing child maltreatment by decreasing the amount of stress associated with economic insecurity. Additionally, investing in quality early childhood education programs, which gives parents the ability to work while their children are in a safe environment, has been shown to reduce child maltreatment as well as reduce generational poverty.
Oklahoma children face higher rates of maltreatment than the rest of the U.S.
Children in Oklahoma experience maltreatment at disproportionately higher rates than children in the rest of the U.S. with a rate of 15.4 substantiated cases per 1,000 children (compared to 8.4 nationally). Between July 2019 and June 2020, this amounted to nearly 16,000 Oklahoma children as having been confirmed victims of maltreatment. There are many causes and risk factors, but the most commonly cited include the stressors and impacts of poverty, unaddressed mental health needs, community violence, and substance use, all of which Oklahoman children experience at higher rates than the rest of the U.S. It is important to note that middle- and upper-class families also experience substance use disorders, domestic violence, and mental health problems. However, they are better equipped with the resources to pay for and access private services to help themselves get help and their children receive necessary care when they are unable to provide it themselves.
More than 77,000 reports were made to Oklahoma Child Welfare Services between July 2019 and June 2020. When the state receives a report, a child welfare specialist begins an investigation. If the report is substantiated, the case is either referred to law enforcement and/or the child can be removed from the home and placed in state custody. This resulted in 4,177 Oklahoma children being removed from their home between July 2019 and June 2020. Oklahoma is one of 22 states that does not exempt financial inability to provide for a child in its definition of child maltreatment. While child welfare specialists are doing their best, this means that Oklahoma is potentially funneling families into the costly and traumatic child welfare system based solely on the parents’ financial circumstances. This also contributes to the immense racial disparities in the child welfare system because Oklahoma families of color (Black, Latinx, American Indian, and people from two or more races) experience poverty at disproportionately high rates when compared with white families.
Reducing child maltreatment starts with improving economic security
For our state’s elected officials and policymakers to take meaningful steps to decrease child maltreatment and improve child outcomes, it will take more than ceremonially planting flags on the capitol lawn once a year during Child Abuse Prevention Month. There are numerous evidence-based policy solutions — raising the minimum wage, strengthening tax credits for families, and investing in early childhood education — that would all reduce child maltreatment. Ultimately, parents want to care and provide for their children, but economic strains forced them to make impossible decisions. Moving forward, Oklahoma cannot rely on the child welfare system as being a primary solution to poverty. Instead, Oklahoma’s leadership should recognize the holistic causes for childhood poverty. Appropriate policy responses should uplift the whole family by providing parents with more resources to properly tend to their children’s needs. By doing this, Oklahoma could reduce overall economic instability, lessen family stress, reduce entry into the child welfare system, and keep our children safer.