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Krehbiel: Legislators look at shift in family and children services


Child welfare services could be more effective — and less expensive — if they were more proactive than reactive, an Oklahoma House of Representatives subcommittee was told Tuesday.

“Sixty percent of child protective services responses nationally are for neglect only, … but our interventions have been predominantly focused on addressing … physical abuse,” said Clare Anderson, a senior policy advisor with the Chapin Hall child welfare research center at the University of Chicago.

The result, she said, tends to be interventions after neglect becomes abuse, and more in the vein of criminal investigations when they should be more assessment-oriented.

“We spend about $33 billion annually, across state, federal and local dollars, by child welfare agencies,” Anderson said. “Only about 15% of those dollars are spent for preventative services.”

Analysts know the factors associated with neglect and abuse, Anderson said, and many of those can be mitigated through various forms of government and private assistance.

The big one, she said, is child care.

“Difficulty of finding child care is a stronger predictor of maternal neglect than almost any other factor, including mental health and severity of drug use,” Anderson said.

A Tulsa woman identified only as Darcy told the panel the difficulty encountered when she and her spouse unexpectedly became the temporary guardians of a nephew in need of therapy.

“We went through two and a half pages of a list of day care that either didn’t have availability or did not want to take a child that had a situation,” she said.

“We have the financial means to look elsewhere, and we have had to do that. … We’ve had to hire someone privately to pick him up from school — which we can do, but my point being that I can’t imagine families in that situation who don’t have the means to do that.”

Other forms of assistance effective in combating child neglect and abuse, witnesses said, include health care for both parents and children, housing, and food programs such as SNAP and WIC.

Gabrielle Jacobi with Kids Count, an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said its annual report ranks Oklahoma 42nd nationally in overall child well-being, 45th in education, 42nd in health, and 41st in family and community strength and stability.

The “bright spot” is a No. 33 ranking for economic well-being.

Although authorized state agency spending for fiscal year 2022, which began July 1, is a record $8.83 billion in nominal dollars, Jacobi said actual purchasing power is 22% less when adjusted for inflation and population.

Anderson and Laura Porter, co-founder of ACE Interface, a national consultant on adverse childhood experiences, said numerous correlations between life circumstances and high ACE scores and child neglect have been identified.

In Washington state, where Porter lives and works, areas with the highest ACE scores are also areas with the highest unemployment and the least access to health care.

“I could have made these (connections) with a lot of things, including crime and justice. There’s health data. School data. ACE data reliably predict where we have failing schools (in Washington), and on and on and on,” said Porter, speaking via video conference call.

Porter said her goal has been to find ways for states to provide more effective services at lower cost to taxpayers, but she said that requires patience. Recommended initiatives can take five or even 10 years to produce measurable results, she said.

In Washington, Porter said, annual budgets for ACE-related programs ran about $4 million but eventually produced returns of 37-to-1.

But, Porter said, alarm bells are ringing.

“The ACE score in the youngest adults is much higher,” she said. “In (Washington), 63% of young adults age 18-34 have an ACE score of 3 or more. Among the next-older group, 35-54, only 35% have a score of 3 or more.”

Porter noted that the 18-34 age group is the most likely to be raising young children of their own.

“This dramatic increase in ACE prevalence among the youngest adults puts the next generation of children at risk,” she said.

From a budgeting standpoint, Porter said, “Each time we see the ACE prevalence in a population increase, it is essentially a future claim against the budgets of the state.”

Photo Credit: MIKE SIMONS, Tulsa World file

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