Promoting collaboration among agencies, strengthening Oklahoma’s child care programs and focusing on struggling families could help the state do a better job of preventing child abuse and neglect.

Those were some of the themes that emerged from a town hall meeting Wednesday afternoon at the Chickasaw Nation Community Center in Ada. The Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness and the Oklahoma State Department of Health hosted the meeting to gather ideas for preventing child abuse in Oklahoma.

OPSR, which helps coordinate an early childhood system focused on strengthening families and preparing children for school, and the state health department are developing a statewide child abuse prevention plan. Wednesday’s meeting in Ada was the last in a series of “community cafes,” designed to give local groups a voice in developing the plan.

“We’re having a conversation, and we want your ideas to help us identify priorities,” said OPSR executive director Debra Andersen.

Participants split up into small groups and began by discussing their vision for supporting children and families. Their suggestions included expanding access to affordable child care, providing more behavioral counseling services and building strong family and community relationships.

Next, the groups were asked to identify possible barriers to making their vision a reality. The groups listed a number of potential obstacles, including the lack of affordable transportation, state agencies’ reluctance to collaborate and burdensome regulations on child care programs.

Finally, the groups talked about ways to address the challenges they had identified. Possible steps included forcing state agencies to collaborate with each other, forging public//private partnerships and strengthening child care programs.

“We want a great workforce; we want economic stability in our state,” said OPSR board member Kathy Cronemiller. “We’re going to have to give them good child care back. And child care doesn’t start at age 4; it starts at zero.”

Cronemiller said it’s difficult to find affordable child care in Oklahoma, so expanding access to affordable care must be part of the solution.

Andersen said Thursday that health department officials will analyze the information from the “community cafes” and look for common themes, as well as differences among communities, in developing a plan for preventing child abuse. She said officials expect to complete the plan by early October.

Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.