9 Investigates: Oklahoma Children Face More Adverse Experiences Than Most

<p>By all accounts, Kendra Adams is an excellent mother to her 5-year-old twins. Adams has homeschooled her kids and taken her role as teacher quite seriously.&nbsp;</p>

Thursday, February 8th 2018, 11:07 pm

By all accounts, Kendra Adams is an excellent mother to her 5-year-old twins. Adams has home-schooled her kids and taken her role as teacher quite seriously.

"Their handwriting and spelling is off the charts," Adams stated, "I'm very proud."

But long before feeling proud, Adams felt anxiety. The 41-year-old mother says she worried that she would not only be a bad parent, but a harmful parent.

"When I was pregnant," recalled Adams. sitting in her family room, "I needed to know that I wasn't going to hurt my children -- in any way, shape or form... I didn't want that for them, I was scared."

Adams says her own abusive childhood fueled a deep desire to break the cycle. She wanted help, and fortunately for her, it was available, in the form of a state and federally-funded home visitation program called Parents as Teachers.

"Parents as Teachers was one of our key programs," said Mindy Bellack, executive director of Frontline Family Services.

Under the program, trained workers make regular home visits where they conduct developmental screenings for the children and work with parents on skills to cope with stress and adversity.

Bellack says there's no better example of the program's efficacy than the Adams family.

"Absolutely not," declared Bellack. "Kendra and her family--these kids, I mean, when they started, they had every potential to go the other way."

Studies have shown that exposure to adversity in childhood can lead to poor health and education outcomes in adulthood.

"When there's trauma and adverse childhood experiences," explained Bellack, "it changes the way the brain functions for the rest of their life."

In recent years, there's been increasing study of the prevalence of these "adverse childhood experiences," or ACEs.

"These are the type of events we hope no child has to encounter," said David Murphey, Research Fellow with Washington, D.C.-based ChildTrends.

In 2014, Murphey and other ChildTrends colleagues published the study, "Adverse Childhood Experiences: National and State-Level Prevalence." The research brief was based on data from a 2011/12 National Survey of Children's Health (NSCH) and showed children in Oklahoma, on average, are exposed to more ACEs than are kids in most other states.

Murphey and his team will soon release a follow-up report, based on more recent data (2016 NSCH). The survey asks parents to report on the exposure of their children to the following ACEs:

-- Somewhat often/very often hard to get by on income

-- Parent/guardian divorced or separated

-- Parent/guardian died

-- Parent/guardian served time in jail

-- Saw or heard violence in the home

-- Victim of violence or witnessed neighborhood violence

-- Lived with anyone mentally ill, suicidal, or depressed

-- Lived with anyone with alcohol or drug problem

A preliminary look at the new data paints an equally bleak picture for Oklahoma children.

Nationally, the survey shows, 46 percent of children (ages 0-17) are exposed to at least one ACE. In Oklahoma, it's 54 percent, and only in Arkansas is the number higher (56%).

Among young children (ages 0-5), the national average is 35 percent who are exposed to one or more ACEs. Sadly, Oklahoma leads all states in this category with 49 percent.

"It's a substantial number," said Murphey, during a recent interview in Washington, D.C., "and I think we need to be concerned about this group."

Murphey says there is substantial research showing that investing in early childhood and family support programs is an effective way to both reduce exposure to ACEs and help children and their families cope with them.

"It's hard to put a price tag on the value of that," Murphey said, "but the short answer is it will reap dividends that will be multiple times the investment."

Oklahoma was once seen, nationally, as a leader in this sort of investment, given the state's leading role in implementing a universal pre-K program. But early childhood experts say, the truth is, Oklahoma is not a leader anymore.

"Unfortunately, what we've seen is the investments we were making twenty years ago," noted Debra Andersen, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness, "have been declining over the past twenty years."

According to the most recent reports from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Oklahoma has dropped to 32nd in the nation when it comes to spending on birth to two. NIEER says Oklahoma is 31st in pre-K spending, $1,500 less per child than the national average.

"It's almost like, as a state, we said, 'Okay we did universal pre-K--check'...like we're finished," said state Senator A.J. Griffin, R-Guthrie.

Sen. Griffin is among the most impassioned supporters of early childhood education at the state Legislature. She says, in order to combat the state's ACE problem, the state needs to invest more in its youngest citizens.

"It doesn't begin when a child turns four and goes to pre-K," Sen. Griffin said during a recent interview, "it actually begins before they're born, and those investments in things like quality pre-natal care and making sure that we have doctors who are willing to practice medicine in rural Oklahoma -- all of it contributes to our overall economy as a state."

Griffin says fighting for this sort of investment, especially with state revenues stretched so thin, as they have been, can be frustrating.

"It is hard to get people to understand that investment in little kids is really important," Griffin admitted, "but we also need to remember that investing in families should be important to all of Oklahomans. We claim to be pro-family, we probably need to put our money where our mouth is."

"We're doing the opposite," said Mindy Bellack.

Last summer, Bellack had to tell Kendra Adams that the state had cut all funding for the Parents as Teachers program, and they would no longer be coming to do home visits.

"It's just heartbreaking," Bellack sighed.

Adams feels fortunate to have had the program for five years. But she worries about the impact of this loss on other families. And she considers where she and her family might be -- with their ACEs -- without it: "My children could be...they could be violent to each other...they could go out into the world and do more harm than good."


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