Overall: Day 3: ACES: Breaking the cycle 'All I ever knew.' Drugs. Alcohol. Jail. Oklahoma's children repeat the patterns of their parents

 

It was Christmas Eve, and 13-year-old Tara Peterson had a house full of uncles and aunts and cousins. The adults started drinking, and once they started, they usually didn’t stop until they were falling down drunk.

“It was normal behavior,” Peterson remembers. “It’s just what people did.”

Feeling grown up, she joined them. And that’s how her drinking problem began. Not sneaking around and hiding it but right in front of her closest relatives. With them.

 

Marijuana came next, then harder substances.

“When I started experimenting with drugs,” she says, “I never really got in trouble or punished for it, either. Everybody just acted like it was normal, too, and I guess for my family it was.”

By the time she was in her mid-20s, Peterson had been arrested a dozen times, mostly for drug possession and writing bad checks, and she had lost custody of her daughter. It took two years and court-ordered rehab to gain permission just to see her again.

Waiting for the first afternoon play date to begin, Peterson sat in a therapist’s office and fidgeted nervously.

Would her now 5-year-old daughter still call her Mom? Would she want a hug? Would she even remember Peterson at all?

More importantly, in the long term, would her daughter follow the family’s same destructive path? Would she face drug and alcoholic abuse? Endure violent, abusive relationships? Go in and out of jail?

“I wanted a better life for my daughter,” Peterson says. “But somehow, I had to get a better life for myself first.”

‘Struggle and fall’

The theory behind ACE scores is that social problems become generational. If a parent, for example, goes to prison, it becomes an “adverse childhood experience” for the kids and makes them more likely to struggle in school, have unwanted pregnancies, abuse drugs and alcohol and go to jail themselves someday, according to ACE studies.

Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state, with roughly 400 women a month booked into the Tulsa County jail alone. And 80% of those women have children, which makes losing a mother to prison one of the most common adverse childhood experiences in the state. And it partly explains why Oklahoma children have some of the highest ACE scores in the country.

The Women in Recovery program, operated since 2009 by Family & Children’s Services in partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, is trying to break the ACEs cycle by keeping mothers out of prison, offering counseling and rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

Tulsa judges divert a small percentage of defendants into the program, sometimes with a prosecutor’s recommendation, sometimes against it. In exchange, the women have to follow a strict regimen, living in WIR apartments while spending 40 hours a week at the WIR offices in downtown Tulsa to take part in a carefully blended mix of group therapy, one-on-one counseling and parenting classes.

“It was the hardest thing I ever did,” says Shelby Caudle, who was facing 10 years in prison if she hadn’t been redirected to the program. “There are a lot of rules. Be here at a certain time. Be back at your apartment at a certain time. Do this; do that. It was not the kind of mindset I was used to.”

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