Over the summer months, Oklahoma state lawmakers are dedicated to preparing for the upcoming legislative session. One way they do this is through the interim study process. Each lawmaker can request an official hearing through a legislative committee to review a law or policy that impacts the state. The hearings are scheduled through the committee chair most closely associated with the issue, and time is dedicated to hearing presentations from speakers who are experts on the subject matter.
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy is pleased to have worked directly with lawmakers to request several different interim studies. We are awaiting a final confirmation from Senate committee chairs on which studies will be heard, but we are confident that many will proceed. Two subject areas where OICA is excited to have an active role are child nutrition and laws that impact both adult and child victims of domestic violence.
I was happy to sit down recently with the staff from Hunger Free Oklahoma to delve into the topic of child nutrition and summer feeding programs, issues I have discussed in previous columns. We are hoping to have organizations that engage on these subjects participate in interim studies addressing why Oklahoma ranks last in the nation on feeding children who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what improvements have been made, and what more can be done. My thanks go out to Sen. Paul Scott and Rep. Toni Hasenbeck for requesting discussions on this important issue.
Another study, requested in the House by Rep. Tammy West, will look at “failure to protect” laws and legislation in Oklahoma and other states. “Failure to protect” laws are used to prosecute parents or guardians of children who witness child-abuse but do not stop it. This is an important concept – no adult should passively allow a child to be abused. However, the law can often ignore the reality of an abusive household where, for instance, a mother is abused and essentially terrorized by a husband or a boyfriend. Furthermore, there have been some instances where the actively abusive adult receives a lighter sentence than the parent witnessing the abuse and failing to protect the child. Currently, the “failure to protect” statute allows a lifetime sentence to be brought against a person, which is usually more than 20 years of incarceration.
This is a complicated issue, and we do not currently have enough research in Oklahoma to fully grasp how this law is being used. It is estimated that a few dozen individuals, mostly women, have been charged with “failure to protect” and been sentenced. We would first call upon funding to be delivered to the Department of Corrections to update their system and provide a clear picture of who these people are and under what circumstances they were prosecuted. For those who have received a punishment under this and other domestic abuse crimes, we will call on policy changes to better fund counseling for inmates. For those who have turned their lives around, we support reuniting them with their children when that is safe to occur. We also want a fair timeline on the sentence to be given in association with counseling.
Of course, we will continue to remind parents of their moral responsibility to protect their child from abuse, even at the risk of their own safety. Sometimes, the only solution is to leave a bad situation. If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, call the Oklahoma Safe Line 1-800-522-SAFE (7233) to speak with an advocate. The first step to securing safety is to get help and into a safe location.
We hope these studies will lead to positive changes for Oklahoma. We will keep you posted about their progress.