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.
I attended an interim study this week requested by Sen. Greg McCortney (R-Ada) and Sen. Kay Floyd (D-OKC) that presented some excellent, if discouraging information on adverse childhood experiences (ACES.) Early childhood experts talked about what ACES are, the lifetime consequences of ACES, what the record shows about ACES in Oklahoma children, and what works to avoid ACES.
ACES have been scientifically proven to disrupt childhood brain development, which in turn causes social, emotional and cognitive impairment that affects a person the rest of her life. Children suffering ACES are known to adopt health-risk behaviors that result in disease, disabilities, and social problems and eventually end in early death. A CDC study shows that people with six or more ACES died 20 years earlier on average than those without ACES. Those with zero ACES lived an average of 80 years while those with 6-plus ACES lived 60 years. The economic toll is also striking. The CDC estimates the lifetime costs associated with child maltreatment is $124 billion.
Oklahoma’s statistics are not good. A 2016 study of ACES data in Oklahoma by the Oklahoma State Department of Health found the following prevalence of ACES reported by adults residing in the state: Violence between adults 16%; parents separated or divorced 31%; incarcerated household member 8.6%; illicit drug use in the household 12.5%; problem drinker in the household 20%; mental illness in the household 18.8 %; sexual abuse 4.2%; repeated verbal/emotional abuse 31.7%; physical abuse 15.5%.
Another study of Oklahoma parents who were surveyed in 2011-2012 showed the following results and ranking: 30% economic hardship (ranked 45th); 30% divorced (ranked 50th); 17% parent abused alcohol or drugs (ranked 49th); 11% witnessed domestic violence (ranked 50th); 12% had a parent with a mental illness (ranked 43rd); 10% had a parent incarcerated (ranked 48th); 13% was a victim of or witnessed neighborhood violence (ranked 49%); 17% already experienced 3 or more ACES (ranked 49th). Oklahoma had the highest rates (with Montana and West Virginia) of children with 4 or more ACES.
The antidote for ACES is stronger families. Studies showed that children can more than overcome ACES with good parenting. Some senators wondered about the role of government and expressed discouragement that there would ever be enough money for government to fix these problems. Some expressed doubt there could be much progress until parents began to accept their responsibilities. The experts agreed that government alone cannot solve the devastating consequences of ACES. But there are many Oklahoma parents who need help to resolve their own issues, so they can step up to the challenge and learn to parent their children.
State government in Oklahoma has good programs and good professionals who know how to help people learn these skills. But funding is insufficient. One expert suggested criminal justice reform could be a significant source of funding for children’s programs. Therein lies the crucial role for legislators. Our senators and representatives are the ones we are depending on to establish priorities. Probably no generation of legislators will fully solve the problem of ACES. But this generation can make it better by establishing better priorities.