(l to r) Joe Dorman, CEO, OK Institute for Child Advocacy, OK State Rep. Mark Lepak
Joe Dorman, CEO of Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA), and former Oklahoma state representative and challenger to Republican Governor Mary Fallin in 2014, conveyed surprise and satisfaction when he told me that Fallin gave him the pen she used to sign a bill to create a Task Force on Trauma-Informed Care (SB 1517) in April. This gesture of bipartisan harmony — in response to a shared accomplishment to advance trauma-informed care policy and practice — is not that unusual in state capitals around the country. ACEs and trauma often have a galvanizing force in today’s highly polarized political environment.
The new law, effective today, November 1, establishes a three-year Task Force on Trauma-Informed Care to study and make recommendations to the legislature on “best practices with respect to children and youth, and their families as appropriate, who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing trauma, especially adverse childhood experience (ACEs)…”
The 17-member task force will include state agency representatives from health, mental health and substance abuse, education, juvenile justice, office of the attorney general, and others; a representative the Indian Health Service; representatives of pediatricians and other physicians; University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University; and a child advocacy organization, among others.
Dorman said that OICA will provide staff support to the task force, freeing up a slot another non-profit, The Parent Child Center of Tulsa, and easing the workload of already taxed state agencies. Dorman says a “trailer bill” will be introduced in the next session to add legislators to the membership of the task force.
When Dorman and I talked last week about how S. 1517 came to be enacted, the Fall Forum of OICA had just concluded, but he was eager to fill me in on the backstory and what lies ahead for the law’s implementation. Dorman described the successful partnership between OICA, whose mission is impacting child-related public policy, and the Potts Family Foundation to educate legislators about ACEs and trauma. He said the bill sailed through the Senate but met some resistance in the House where some lawmakers see the “task force approach” as “passing the buck.”
The story of Dorman’s introduction to ACEs and trauma struck familiar notes. When his predecessor at OICA told him about ACEs, the information didn’t really sink in. But when a Harvard professor cancelled a speaking engagement at an OICA meeting after Dorman became its CEO, the substitute speaker, Dr. Jennifer Hays-Grudo gave the ACEs presentation that made him a believer.
Another Oklahoma policymaker from the other side of the aisle, State Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore), was exposed to ACEs and their impact on adult health when he participated in a regional meeting in Minneapolis of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). That meeting focused broadly on CDC’s “Priority Strategies in Public Health” but also included information on ACEs science. Even though pubic health is not in his “wheelhouse,” Lepak was tapped to fill in for legislators who serve on health committees but could not attend. After a 37-year career in telecommunications, Lepak gravitates to tax and business-oriented issues and his committee assignments focus on budget and appropriations. Still, he says ACEs science “just makes sense,” pulls disparate things together, and really resonates for him. He found the impact of reduced lifespan from ACEs “really shocking” and could see how siloed systems result in failed policies — for example, how people, especially women, are given prison sentences instead of drug treatment.
Lepak described how his exposure to ACEs science was amplified by a parallel experience his wife, attorney Linda Lepak, had at the same time as the Minneapolis meeting. She attended a screening of the film Reslience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope and found it provided a fresh perspective on much of her professional and volunteer experience as a legal aid services attorney and role as a guardian ad litem. Both Mark and Linda Lepak found the information helpful in connecting the dots on issues and initiatives they care about. As parents of five children, they have experienced years of observing the changes in the lives of their children’s schoolmates that have included a rise of neglect and economic hardship for too many children.
Both Lepak and Dorman are concerned about the high levels of incarceration in the state, especially of women, and the impact on children whose parents are incarcerated. By addressing the root cause of problems, trauma-informed policy and practice can have lasting and profound impacts, says Dorman.
Comparing the passage in this year’s session of a criminal justice reform measure and the task force statute, Dorman said the long-term impact of the trauma-informed care task force could exceed other reforms: By getting at the root cause of problems, they can be prevented from happening in the first place.
Dorman described a number of factors that led to the successful enactment of the Trauma-Informed Task Force:
- Legislators were educated about the ACE Study and trauma, through the efforts of child advocacy organizations and through the state’s interim study process that produced internal legislative studies: House 2017 House 17-113 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Senate 18-17 Study on ACEs.
- The Potts Family Foundation played a key role in educating organizations and legislators through its Early Childhood Legislative Caucus, comprising nearly 50 members from both political parties that meet monthly with a regular focus on ACEs and trauma.
- The efforts of Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker to raise awareness and involvement in ACEs science and trauma among the nation’s first spouses. Governor Fallin’s husband, Wade Christensen, participated in a meeting of first spouses in Milwaukee and a meeting held for first spouses at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
- The trauma movement has been growing throughout Oklahoma, raising awareness and support for trauma-informed policies and practices statewide. These initiatives include public awareness efforts (e.g., a statewide meeting, screening the film Resilience statewide, etc.). The movement has benefited from the leadership of Dr. Robert W. Block, who, as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), made toxic stress a major AAP priority issue and continues this work in Oklahoma. For more examples, see the OK state profile archived here.