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COMMENTARY
children's agenda
A child works on an assignment at a Norman, Oklahoma, elementary school. (Elizabeth Sims)

For those who are involved in politics and policy at the Oklahoma State Capitol, 2017 felt like the year that would never end. Special legislative sessions, elusive budget deals and an early start to political campaigning gave 2017 an endless Groundhog Day vibe that made it seem like 2018 existed only in the distant future.

Nevertheless, the New Year is here. It may surprise the public to learn that the bill-filing deadline for the 2018 legislative session was Dec. 8. Bills filed before then did not necessarily need to be in their detailed, final form; most were “shell bills” that simply identified 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 as-yet undefined legislation as 2018 moves forward.

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 upon which low-income families rely.

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 constantly faces the threat of regression. 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 Our outdated criminal justice policies are breaking up families, creating cyclical poverty and costing taxpayers a fortune.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 percent of the federal poverty level, for instance, the same is true for just 37 percent of African American children, 36 percent of Native American children and 33 percent 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 (ACEs) — 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 each year. 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 toward 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.

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Joe Dorman serves as CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. Previously, Dorman served House District 65 as a State Representative for 12 years and was the 2014 Democratic nominee for Governor of Oklahoma.