Few people have been in a position to bear greater witness to Oklahoma’s extraordinary rates of childhood trauma than Doris Fransein, who recently retired as Tulsa County’s longtime chief judge over juvenile cases.
In nearly two decades of handling 30 to 40 cases a day, she has had to confront every kind of heartbreak and horror a child could suffer.
“My largest frustration is the fact that we need public awareness and the proper resources to address it — more medical and appropriate mental health care,” Fransein said. “I get so frustrated that we don’t get out of our little neighborhoods. It was just so sad — what people who live here experience. There’s such a large part of our population that has just gone through so much and is hurting so much, and so many people aren’t even aware.”
Leaders from government, education, and mental health and social services say there is a growing consensus to attack the root causes of Oklahoma’s extraordinary rates of incarceration, divorce, child abuse, heart disease and cancer deaths.
“If Gov. Stitt wants to be a top-10 state, it starts with our kiddos,” said Rep. Carol Bush, R-Tulsa.
Oklahoma has the highest percentage of children who suffer multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which studies have linked to a wide range of health problems and social ills. And to address those high ACE scores, Bush helped create the state Legislature’s Task Force on Trauma-Informed Care, which is one year into its three-year study that will lead to making recommendations to the Legislature.
The first report from the 17-member panel is due out in November and its final plan by December 2020, which would allow lawmakers to consider reforms in early 2021.
Bush said there’s a national movement, with grants and federal dollars available for Oklahoma to try to tap once it comes up with a statewide approach.
Annette Jacobi, co-chair of the task force and director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, said Oklahoma needs to take stock of current efforts and to identify potential strategies to address gaps in its services.
She said that is particularly critical in underserved rural areas and after nearly a decade of budget cuts and service eliminations in child abuse and neglect prevention programs.
But Jacobi senses momentum building within the state and feels positive progress is being achieved.
“It’s not a state government problem — all of us are in this,” she said. “Everyone has a role to play.”
‘This is a crisis’
In the last year, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has convened two state summits for educators on childhood trauma and healing.
She cited research that has shown children exposed to trauma often exhibit learning difficulties, depression and poor decision-making in the classroom, plus higher rates of absences, decreased reading abilities and lower graduation rates when compared to their peers.
“Teachers and education leaders must address the needs of our students where they are, or we will shortchange the future of kids who suffer maltreatment, abuse and neglect,” Hofmeister told the Tulsa World. “Thankfully, our state has begun to face the facts about our most vulnerable children, and momentum is building for a new, more promising approach within schools and community.”
Oklahoma’s new first lady, Sarah Stitt, spoke at the most recent summit, sharing her personal story about the lasting effects of childhood trauma from growing up in a household with two parents suffering from mental illness.
“This is a crisis,” Stitt told thousands of educators who attended the February event. “All of us have known or have a family member who struggles with mental illness, abuse or drug addiction. These are the things we have to change in our state if we want to give our children hope. I am living proof that there is hope and a future for everyone.”
Hofmeister recently issued a call for $58 million in new state funding to build a school counselor corps with more licensed professional counselors and academic school counselors in Oklahoma schools for two purposes.
“These important professionals are needed for our students, but also for our teachers who seek coaching and training to meet the needs of children with adverse childhood experiences,” she said.
Next up will be a push for the use of restorative practices — as opposed to punitive practices — in more classrooms and schools across the state.
In a nutshell, being “trauma-informed” means educators and others working with children must ask themselves what happened to a child rather than “What’s wrong with them.”
New examples of community support for that approach are popping up in the form of new partnerships with outside mental health providers and even local police departments, including Oklahoma City and Norman, where police officers contact schools with a three-word heads-up that a child has suffered a potentially traumatic event at home, such as the loss of a family member or witnessing a crime or the arrest of a parent.
The simple, cautionary message passed along? “Handle with care.”
“For students to thrive, we must all recognize that the world outside the classroom impacts the world inside the classroom,” Hofmeister said. “This is why community partnerships with programs such as ‘Handle with Care’ are so effective in supporting kids.”
A problem crossing generations
Hofmeister’s work in public schools should serve as an example for other state agencies to follow in making ACEs a priority, said Joe Dorman, a former state representative who now serves as CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
Every state official who comes into contact with troubled children, from police officers to welfare caseworkers, need to know how to recognize the signs of emotional trauma, Dorman said. And the effort needs to be statewide, not concentrated only in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, he said.
“Because rural areas are experiencing the same traumas,” Dorman said. “Maybe even at a higher percentage.”
High rates of social ills go back several generations, he said, so Oklahoma urgently needs to expand parenting-skills training.
“Often times, the parents have experienced the same kind of trauma,” Dorman said. “And the parents may not even realize how they are passing those experiences on to their children.”
Whatever the costs, he said it won’t be nearly as expensive as building more prisons.
“If we don’t deal with these kids in the early years,” Dorman said, “we’ll have to deal with them as adults in the correctional system.”
One local program, Women in Recovery, is proving that intervention with parents can make a difference. But its reach is limited.
About 400 women a month enter the Tulsa County jail, and 80% of them have children. A court liaison works with attorneys, judges and prosecutors to identify candidates for Women in Recovery’s counseling and rehab program as an alternative to prison sentences “based on individual risks and needs assessment,” according to Mimi Tarrasch, the program director.
“Our efforts break the cycle of multi-generational incarceration,” Tarrasch said. “We know with every grad, the next generation’s score will be improved.”
The program, which is funded largely through the George Kaiser Family Foundation, can take only a small percentage of women who are facing prison time, and only women from Tulsa County.
Tarrash said Women in Recovery would welcome the chance to expand, but that would take a massive increase in funding.
‘We have to come at it on every level’
Michael Brose, chief empowerment officer at Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said to truly alter Oklahoma’s current trajectory, everyone in the state must be aware of and understand adverse childhood experiences and how they have a real stake in finding solutions — because nonprofits and state agencies can’t do it alone.
“We need a real, statewide campaign to raise awareness and develop ways to address the issues. And it needs to come from the very top levels — from the governor’s office, the Legislature, down to the state agencies and then out into the community,” Brose said. “If we’re really serious, we have to come at it on every level. Then, it has to be sustained. It can’t be a flavor of the month.”
Both Brose and Fransein, the retired Tulsa County District Court’s juvenile division chief judge, said one necessary solution isn’t as simple as more mental health services being funded immediately, because they said the mental health profession has its own work to do when it comes to addressing childhood traumas.
“There’s a false assumption that all mental health professionals get this,” Brose said, “but too often, we treat the symptom right in front of us instead of exploring what happened to someone and what insight that might give. It’s a time-consuming process, but it can be critically rewarding.”
Fransein said court workers from all over the state have undergone awareness training in recognizing childhood trauma, and Tulsa County received national recognition for its trauma-informed practices to better serve children and parents caught in the judicial process.
“The majority of parents that come to us, particularly in neglect cases, suffer horrifically from their own experiences,” she said. “We saw very disregulated behaviors in the courtroom — a lot of substance abuse, a lot of domestic abuse. Any time we did extensive psychological evaluation or I was fortunate enough to have a good DHS caseworker involved in the case who asked good questions, they would relate some extremely traumatic experiences very early in their childhood.”
Fransein said Tulsa County is fortunate to be able to collaborate with top-notch community mental health providers, but she said more “appropriate” mental health services are needed and such services need to be made available to more people.
“Trauma puts up tremendous barriers and walls. When someone’s ready, because so much of that is about the willingness of the client to delve deep into their past, and you have a good therapist, it works,” Fransein said. “I saw miracles when that was done well. The parent would come to us and say: ‘Thank you for helping me. I didn’t realize this. I feel better. I am able to understand.’ That needs to occur on a regular basis with all of our cases.”
The bottom line, according to Brose, is: “We’ve got a problem here in Oklahoma. Once again we’re at the top of the bad list.”
And short of a serious statewide campaign, he said, “we could talk this to death for the rest of our lives and not make a dent.”
Staff writers Corey Jones, Michael Overall and Tim Stanley contributed to this report.