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State and city officials reaffirmed April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, and local organizations are working to increase awareness.

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Businesses around the state, like Oklahoma County Juvenile Center, are planting pinwheel gardens, the official symbol of Prevent Child Abuse America. - ALEXA ACE
  • Alexa Ace
  • Businesses around the state, like Oklahoma County Juvenile Center, are planting pinwheel gardens, the official symbol of Prevent Child Abuse America.

April has been Child Abuse Prevention Month since the ’80s, but state and city leaders are making it a point to support the designation. Mayor David Holt and Gov. Kevin Stitt each issued proclamations about child abuse prevention recently.

“Because of all the attention that’s been given to this, not just nationwide but statewide, more people who develop policy at city, state, local level, they’re starting to understand that they have a role too,” said Cindy Allen, Parent Promise external relations director. “Public policy has a role in helping raise resilient kids.”

Parent Promise is a nonprofit organization working to prevent neglect and abuse of Oklahoma children through voluntary “home-based family support programs” for new and expecting parents and families with children up to 12 years old. With a network of hospitals, faith-based groups and community partners, referrals to and from Parent Promise help hundreds of families a year. Executive director Sherry Fair often advocates for better funding at the state Capitol.

“Right now, the health department is only able to allocate $2 million to about nine providers,” she said. “At one point in time, they were able to allocate $6 million to about 24 providers that served all 77 counties. And I know that we can’t just sit down this year and go back up to that, but I want them to understand that if we can just allocate money to the health department a little bit more … maybe these numbers on the back end, such as being No. 1 in incarcerated women in the world, will start going down.”

Allen and Fair estimate Parent Promise has helped approximately a thousand families since 2010; they cross-reference their client names with Department of Human Services (DHS) to determine their level of success based on substantiated cases of abuse and neglect and have found a 95 percent success rate.

“We really work on the front end in prevention in order to save money on the back end,” Fair said. “To become a top 10 state like Gov. Stitt wants to, it’s a real important investment to make on the front end.”

Oklahoma efforts

Sherry Fair, Parent Promise executive director, emphasizes that it is everybody’s responsibility all year long to help prevent child abuse. - MIGUEL RIOS
  • Miguel Rios
  • Sherry Fair, Parent Promise executive director, emphasizes that it is everybody’s responsibility all year long to help prevent child abuse.
Parent Promise, which serves as the state chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America, addresses adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are negative experiences that happen to a child before they turn 18. An ACEs score is determined by 10 questions; “yes” answers to any question constitute a point, with 10 being highest and worst score. Oklahoma’s average ACEs score is 4.

Children with high ACEs scores tend to have more issues at school, have more aggressive tendencies, engage in risky behavior, have trouble sleeping, deal with mental illness or depression and are at higher risks of things like strokes and heart disease.

“We don’t outright give the test, but because we’re in the home on a regular basis and we formed this relationship-based service … our parent educators will start to see that, ‘Oh, there’s an ACE and here’s an ACE,’” Fair said. “If you can give a child a positive beginning, they’ll have a much more positive trajectory in life.”

When teachers, principals or any adult with authority learns about ACEs, they begin to think of the children differently. What might have caused one to simply ask, “What’s wrong?” now makes them think about what is going on in that child’s life.

“District Attorney David Prater has talked several times before, and he said that when he started understanding the ACEs, it really made him look at the people that he was prosecuting much differently,” Fair said. “He would see those fathers standing there and realize, ‘What was going on in their lives that they’re now here before me and I’m about ready to send them to jail?’”

Oklahoma State Department of Health’s (OSDH) 2019-2023 plan for preventing child abuse and neglect lists infrastructure, resources, community involvement and knowledge strategies to tackle the issue.

“Child maltreatment is a frequent occurrence and has been on the rise in Oklahoma in recent years,” the report reads. “The number of Oklahoma children confirmed to be victims of abuse and neglect in [state fiscal year] 2017 was more than double that of confirmed victims in SFY 2010, increasing from 7,248 to 15,289.”

According to Oklahoma DHS’ 2018 annual report, there were almost 16,000 confirmed victims of child abuse, neglect or both.

The OSDH plan identifies lead organizations — Parent Promise, Systems of Care, Head Start, local schools, community organizations, university research programs and faith-based groups — that help alleviate the problem. Another organization targeting the issue is Child Abuse Response and Evaluation (CARE) Center, which mainly focuses on healing after abuse or neglect but also offers prevention education.

Cindy Allen, external relations director, said providing children with great childhoods sets them on a positive trajectory in life. - MIGUEL RIOS
  • Miguel Rios
  • Cindy Allen, external relations director, said providing children with great childhoods sets them on a positive trajectory in life.

“We are serving thousands of kids a year, and total, our overall 2018 impact, we served almost 12,000 families and children,” CARE CEO Stacy McNeiland said. “We’re dealing with the worst of worst cases of abuse; this is the most severe situation in Oklahoma County. … We receive referrals from children within the 24- to 48-hour time period; it’s a real critical time period after significant abuse happens. We’re working in the investigative, research collection stage as well as that healing component to serving children and their families.”

CARE Center, which will be expanding soon, is made up of investigators, service workers, assistant district attorneys and medical, counseling and family advocacy personnel. According to its website, it’s Oklahoma County’s only child advocacy center dedicated to helping children heal after abuse. However, it also focuses on advocacy and educational services to help identify and prevent neglect and abuse.

“There’s not a lot of areas where you can walk up to a building and say, ‘Hey, what education classes are there?’ or, ‘I’m worried about my child and her internet usage. Do you have a class for that?’ and be able to look at something and get immediate assistance and help on that,” McNeiland said.

Local leaders will promote child abuse prevention throughout the month with various activities. Exchange clubs of OKC will present the annual display of flags on the state Capitol; government officials will have a press conference and ceremony 8:30 a.m. April 23, and flags will be displayed through April 29.

“Every positive outcome we say we want in the state of Oklahoma begins with raising healthy and resilient kids; it’s just that simple,” Allen said. “When you look at the outcomes that we are unfortunately known for, those begin with children at a very young age not getting the care that they needed.”

“That’s why you want the state and municipalities to really look at funding projects like this,” Fair said. 

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