BY JOE DORMAN
For those who are involved in politics and policy at the Oklahoma Capitol, 2017 feels like the year that will never end. Special legislative sessions, elusive budget deals, and an early start to political campaigning have given this year an endless “Ground Hog Day” vibe that makes it seem like 2018 exists only in the distant future.
Nevertheless, the New Year is practically here, and it may surprise the public to learn that the bill-filing deadline for the 2018 legislative session is this Friday, Dec. 8. Bills filed before Friday do not necessarily need to be in their detailed, final form; most are “shell bills” that simply identify a topic.
In that spirit, the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy has identified five priority areas we hope our lawmakers make the focal point of their legislation. They include:
Economic opportunity: Oklahoma needs to reduce its very high poverty rate. Restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit will provide immediate relief to low-income families. Protecting access to health care, especially for children, by fully funding SoonerCare should be a budgeting priority as well. This is especially important on the state level given ongoing fears of federal cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program [CHIP]. Bolstering public education [starting with a teacher pay raise] will also help shore up services that low-income families rely upon.
Foster care, adoption and child welfare: Oklahoma’s “Pinnacle Plan” – the reform agenda designed to correct longstanding problems within the Department of Human Services’ child welfare division – has been successful at reducing caseloads for social workers, contributing to a safer and more stable environment for children. Severe and chronic underfunding at DHS, however, means the agency is constantly a threat to regress. To prevent that from happening, legislators must give DHS the resources it needs to hire, train and retain quality social workers.
Criminal justice reform: Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the developed world and the No. 2 male incarceration rate in the nation. Our outdated criminal justice policies are breaking up families, creating cyclical poverty and costing taxpayers a fortune. Fines and fees have created virtual “debtors prisons,” over-stuffed and dangerous facilities that warehouse Oklahomans for non-violent crimes and separate them from their families and their jobs. We need common sense reforms that keep families together and redirect non-violent criminals away from long stints in prison.
Race equity: Like most places in the country, children of color face disadvantages and challenges that their white peers do not. While almost two-thirds of white children come from families making more than 200% of the federal poverty level, for instance, the same is true for just 37% of African American children, 36% of Native American children and 33% of Hispanic children. Legislators should examine ways of closing that race gap, focusing on improving outcomes [and funding levels] at public schools.
Early childhood development: Research continues to support the notion that Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACE] – which include things like exposure to poverty, domestic violence or substance abuse at a young age – can be debilitating events that need specific, trauma-informed care. OICA supports providing education and health care professionals with greater training and resources regarding ACEs and Trauma Informed Care.
Many of the concepts listed above were topics of conversation at the 2017 KIDS COUNT Conference, hosted by OICA and attended by hundreds of child advocates. Another theme at the conference was the need to brand 2018 as “The Year of the Child,” a 365-day reminder that we should all be working towards solutions that help our youngest residents. That idea is being embraced by a growing list of organizations working to refocus our politics and public policy in a way that benefits children.
If you have ideas of your own regarding problems facing our state, please contact your state legislators this week! You can find their contact information at OICA.org under our legislative link. Also, we would appreciate it if you would post on the OICA Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/OICAKidsCount/ and our Twitter account @OklaChildAdv with your solutions.
If we start the positive dialogue now, we can help ensure 2018 is a productive legislative session that improves child well-being for years to come.
– Former state Rep. Joe Dorman is CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy