RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now, more fallout from the economic downturn. States facing record-high deficits are making deep cuts in spending on safety net programs. That has children's advocates worried about efforts to prevent kids from being abused and neglected. As in other states, Oklahoma is finding such programs getting squeezed, just as people on the front lines of child abuse say the demand is growing.
NPR's Pam Fessler went to Tulsa for this part of our series.
PAM FESSLER: The women barely fit into the tiny chairs in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa. The room's usually used for Sunday school. But these women are looking for a different kind of salvation.
Ms. LORI MOORMAN: There's sometimes, you know, I'll go back in the bedroom and I'll get my pillow, and Retta's in there watching cartoons, and I'll go (screams) and just scream in my pillow, you know?
FESSLER: Lori Moorman is one of several mothers who meet here twice a month. She has a 4-year-old daughter, and a husband who's often away for work. She says even the best mothers sometimes feel like they're about to go crazy, especially if they have other stresses in their lives, which these women do -plenty of them.
Ms. SUSAN PHAM: I'm sure you guys heard the most recent crazy, bizarre thing. He basically laid his hands on me, and I had to put him in jail.
FESSLER: Susan Pham is talking about the father of her two young boys, how he physically abused her.
Ms. PHAM: Put a protection order against him and everything.
FESSLER: And then there are the bills to juggle - health insurance, the rent, day care if they're luck enough to find work. But here, these women get to let it all out and to exchange advice, mom to mom, with the help of a family support worker. Moorman says these are friends she can rely on.
Ms. MOORMAN: Just having this here, you know, it just helps, just to know you're not the only one here struggling and just trying to make it day to day. No nine more months off today.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FESSLER: The sessions are run by the Parent Child Center of Tulsa, but funded by the state's Office of Child Abuse Prevention. Research shows that parenting groups like these can limit abuse by helping at-risk mothers - those with low incomes, histories of substance abuse or other challenges.
But funding's been cut and will likely be cut again because the state of Oklahoma is $1.3 billion in the hole. Lawmakers say they want to protect children, but there are lots of demands. Still, children's advocates have some important allies.
Mr. BILL CITTY (Police Chief, Oklahoma): If you really want to seriously deal with the issue of fighting crime, you invest in the types of programs that are going to give at-risk kids a healthy start.
FESSLER: Bill Citty is Oklahoma City's police chief. He says this is the kind of thing that pays off in the long run.
Children who've been abused are more likely to become violent criminals when they grow up, so police chiefs and sheriffs across the country are pushing to fund efforts to prevent abuse and neglect, even though it might compete with their own, short-term interests.
Mr. CITTY: We need additional police officers, yeah, but it's a balance.
FESSLER: Citty says he can put criminals in jail all day long, but it won't get at the root of the problem. And his officers see it firsthand. They're often the first to respond to reports of abuse - and there's plenty of it here in a state where teen pregnancy and drug abuse are serious concerns.
Unidentified Woman: Are you leaving?
Mr. JOHN STEGGY(ph) (Detective, Norman Police Department): We have a child with a bruise on his face at a day care, so Christy and I have to go.
FESSLER: That's Detective John Steggy of the Norman Police Department. He and another officer work at the Mary Abbott House, a cozy, Victorian house in Norman. This is where the county's abuse and neglect cases are investigated. Police, welfare workers and other specialists work side by side. The idea is to provide a non-threatening place where young victims can be interviewed once -not again and again by multiple agencies.
Like everyone on the front lines I spoke to for this story, executive director Ann Way says caseloads are growing, even though funding is down.
Ms. ANN WAY (Executive Director, Mary Abbott House): Last week, we had interviews scheduled for about 21 children, which is probably the largest week that we've ever had.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Ms. JEANNINE BAKER (Outgoing Director, Mary Abbott House): The stairs are steep and narrow, so be careful.
FESSLER: Outgoing director Jeannine Baker takes me upstairs to see one of the interview rooms. Children come up from a downstairs waiting room filled with toys and stuffed animals but here, the room's bare with a big two-way mirror on the wall. Baker says alleged victims are told there's a police officer and a welfare worker on the other side, listening in.
Ms. BAKER: They watch TV. They know there's people behind the mirror. We're very open about that. Some of these kids have been betrayed by every adult they know, so we're not going to lie to them.
FESSLER: In the center of the room sits a small table with a large sketch pad. Children who've been physically or sexually abused can use it to help describe what happened. Sometimes they use cloth dolls. Baker removes a couple of them from a brown box by the wall.
Ms. BAKER: This is probably a child.
FESSLER: She says the dolls come every shape and race - boys, girls, men, women. There's even a grandpa doll.
Ms. BAKER: So, he's got grandpa hair on his chest and grandpa hair on his head and...
FESSLER: She opens the doll's pants.
Ms. BAKER: ...parts.
FESSLER: All the dolls are anatomically correct. This is serious business.
Baker says most of the children who come here are the victims of sexual abuse. She thinks caseloads are up because people are more willing these days to report such abuse. But Mary Abbott House has also seen a rise in physical abuse cases with the economic downturn.
Welfare worker Karla Holmes says she sees the pressures daily.
Ms. KARLA HOLMES (Welfare Worker, Mary Abbott House): A lot of our parents are losing jobs, they're living in poverty, you know. There's a lot of substance abuse around here.
FESSLER: There also used to be two welfare workers at Mary Abbott House; now there's only one. Two interview jobs have been cut to one and a half and last month, it was a big shock when workers here tried to find emergency mental health services for a severely traumatized child. They called the place down the road that they usually used, only to find that it no longer cares for young children because of budget cuts.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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