When the Institute released its policy priorities last month, the list included protecting programs and interventions that strengthen families. This may appear very vague. But the truth is that supporting families is at the heart of our policy interests because healthy brain development during early childhood is essential to providing a solid foundation for a successful adulthood. The brain grows to almost 90% of its adult size by the time a child reaches age 3. During this time the brain is especially sensitive to toxic stress and trauma, so prolonged exposure to such situations can have detrimental, long-lasting effects on children that can lead to lifelong struggles with unhealthy and/or dangerous behaviors. These long-term struggles then become cycles resulting in family instability and poor health and academic achievement.
In recent years, there has been an increased focus on preventing children from experiencing the types of prolonged stress and trauma that cause their brain to fall short of its full developmental potential – and rightfully so. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study shows us a relationship exists between negative childhood experiences and the origins of risk behaviors that evolve into the leading causes of disease and disability in adulthood, including alcoholism, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, and other common chronic illness.
In Oklahoma, the probability of a child being exposed to an ACE is alarmingly high. The number of confirmed cases of child maltreatment has increased nearly 33% in Oklahoma over the last four years. In 2013, there were 11,418 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect – that is 12.2 children out of every 1,000. The statistics for household and family dysfunction are equally dismal. The divorce rates for Oklahoma are second highest in the country. We are #4 in the nation for overall rates of imprisonment, and #1 in the incarceration of women. Our state is #2 in the U.S. for the number of adults struggling with mental illness and #3 for the number of women killed by men. Approximately 20,000 cases of domestic violence are reported each year in Oklahoma, and an estimated one-third of domestic violence homicides are witnessed by children. This is enough to cause worry for our state’s future. The connection between the effects of childhood trauma and stress and the quality of life in adulthood shows a bleak outlook for Oklahoma’s future rates of mental illness and incarceration; effects we are already seeing across the state.
Oklahoma children who suffer from these traumatic experiences and are not provided treatment or intervention are likely to suffer from disease, disability, and dysfunction in adulthood. The good news is that we have become more skilled at preventing and mitigating the impacts of toxic stress and trauma. Evidence-based programs throughout the state seek to provide a continuum of care for struggling families who are at risk for worse outcomes. Among these are home visitation programs that work with families to assure the well-being and healthy development of children. Programs like Children First and Start Right not only focus on showing parents how to help their child reach their full developmental potential, but also assist caregivers in active skill building which enhances their ability to be good parents. Creating healthy, stable families will aid in breaking the cycle of toxic stress and trauma we are currently seeing in the state.
That is why it is vital that resources for programs like these not fall victim to politics or budget cuts. In times of revenue shortfalls and economic instability, it makes sense to make smart investments that will safeguard our state’s future economic development. By investing in programs that aid in strengthening families, we lower the need for high cost services down the road. Estimates have shown that home visitation programs save as much as $5.70 for every dollar invested. These programs have shown outcomes including decreased rates of child maltreatment, school dropouts and criminal justice involvement, as well as improved health and economic outcomes for children and families. Simply put, investments in programs and interventions that strengthen families are an investment in our future.