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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.”

Caudle lost custody of a 2-year-old after passing out drunk in a car and waking up to realize the boy was missing. Police found him 45 minutes later at home by himself, and Caudle was arrested for felony child neglect. Alone, that probably wouldn’t have meant serious time in prison, but she was already on probation for burglary, DUI and hit and run.

Women in Recovery, however, offered Caudle another chance, not so much for her own sake, but for her son’s. Sending her to prison would have added another point to his already high ACE score.

After therapy, Caudle understands the effects her childhood experiences had on her as an adult.

“Growing up sexually abused, physically abused, my parents in addiction, all I ever knew, and still know, is that pain is love. Addiction and abuse is all I know. That’s all I know. That’s what I expect and what I crave for.”

With WIR’s help, however, she has been sober for two years and has regained custody of her son. And now, she is involved in WIR alumni activities, which offer support indefinitely for women who have graduated from the program.

“They say the two-year mark is where a lot of people struggle and fall back,” she says. “So I have to be vigilant. I can’t slack off now.”

‘Generation after generation’

Like Caudle, Peterson saw the Women in Recovery program as a chance to break her family’s long, multigenerational cycle of addiction and incarceration. She hadn’t seen her 5-year-old daughter in two years when, thanks to making progress in rehab, a judge let her have a play date at the Women in Recovery offices.

As soon as Peterson’s daughter came into the room, she yelled “Mom!” and ran to throw her arms around her mother.

Peterson could breathe again.

“That’s when I knew everything was going to be OK,” she says. “I mean, it wasn’t like everything was suddenly fine again. It was still going to take a lot of time to repair the damage I had done. But when she hugged me, I knew it was going to be OK eventually.”

Having completed the Women in Recovery program, she has regained partial custody and currently works as a family advocate for Tulsa BEST, an anti-poverty program funded through the George Kaiser Family Foundation. But her daughter still worries about Mom “disappearing” again.

The little girl already has an ACE score of 2: one point for her mother’s addiction, one for her mother’s time in jail. But Peterson gave birth to a second child just weeks before this spring’s Women in Recovery graduation. And that child has a chance to grow up with an ACE score of zero.

One child will have at least faint memories of her mother as a drug addict, and it remains to be seen how those memories will affect her later in life. The other child, however, will never know that kind of environment, Peterson promises.

“My family has faced these kinds of problems with addiction for generation after generation,” she says. “It stops with me.”

Day 3: ACES: Breaking the cycle: She was always there. A court-appointed child advocate forms 20-year bond with two sisters

Maura Guten didn’t encounter much adversity growing up, but others in her life did. Her parents were impoverished in Ireland. Her University of Tulsa roommate experienced abuse and neglect as a child.

Guten’s parents emigrated to the U.S., made a family and modeled service to their children. Guten’s roommate tore through TU classes during the week and Tulsa police reserve training on weekends.

That made an impression on Guten. When her TU sorority partnered with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a program that champions traumatized or neglected children caught up in the court system, she seized the opportunity.

“I was almost 22 when I went through the training,” said Guten, now president of Tulsa’s Child Abuse Network. “I remember being scared. ‘Gosh, I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve never had kids.’ They encouraged me and said, ‘Listen, these kids just by virtue of having an advocate assigned to them will have better odds in life than any kid who doesn’t have a CASA volunteer.’ ”

Guten completed the program and took her first case.

“Thirteen- and 14-year-old sisters,” she said “They were street smart. They did not have parents around, and the 14-year-old had a 6-week-old baby when I became their advocate …

“The girls had lived in a filthy hotel room for a time. Their mom was manufacturing drugs. There were some seedy people there. Some men were trying to get one of the girls to drink alcohol and take her clothes off and things. She said she was going to use the restroom and took the phone in there. She can still describe the phone call to me.

“She pulled this phone with a really long cord into the bathroom and called her dad, who wasn’t around. She remembered his number and said, ‘Dad, I’m scared. Will you come get me?’ He said, ‘I’m sorry honey, I can’t come right now, but I promise as soon as I get time I’ll come visit you.’ ”

Guten heard stories like that, trashed any notions of fear and pledged she would be there. She was there, all right.

“In Tulsa, they ask CASA advocates people to stay on for at least a year,” she said. “A lot of cases in Tulsa County last about two years. Some of them are longer, some are shorter.”

The 13- and 14-year-old girls Guten encountered when she completed training are now 33 and 34. They are both doing well, Guten reported, kept busy by marriages, children, jobs and the ups and down of everyday life.

They still see their CASA advocate.

“Maybe seven or eight years ago, the older sister, she and I were speaking at an event,” Guten said. “When she got up on stage, it was the first time I heard her speak publicly about her experience having an advocate. She said, ‘Maura was always there.’

“It wasn’t something that I did actively. It was something I just did by virtue of being there. That was the key. Always being there. In fact, I’m going to Arkansas Monday to see her. Something came up at work, and I’ll have to ask to have that rescheduled.

“I thought this morning, ‘Oh, she’s an adult. She’ll understand.’ Then I was like, ‘No, I was always there. I promised her I’d always be there.’ I still need to always be there for her.”

Gov. Stitt, Mayor Bynum ask for expedited study of levee system on Arkansas River

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt and three mayors have joined members of the state’s congressional delegation in asking the federal government to fast-track a study of the Arkansas River levee system.

Stitt was joined by Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, Bixby Mayor Brian Guthrie and Jenks Mayor Robert Lee in writing a July 5 letter asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete the study by this December rather than September 2020.

“This will allow for much needed upgrades to be addressed before the close of the 116th Congress,” the letter says. “Any deadline past December runs the risk of delaying the rebuilding and recovery process several years for this vital infrastructure.”

The letter notes the recent historic flooding in eastern Oklahoma.

“This area was fortunate that the Tulsa-West Tulsa Levee System held back water for weeks, compared to the last major flooding event in 1986 that lasted less than a day,” the letter says. “If these 75-year-old levees had been breached, the damage would have been catastrophic to the communities of hard-working Oklahomans protected by the levee system.”

The letter notes that in 2008 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rated the Tulsa-West Tulsa levees as unacceptable.

“Based on your own assessment, it is clear you, too, recognize the urgency for modernization and upgrades,” the letter says.

In June, U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe and U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern sent a letter to the Corps, also requesting that the study be put on the fast track.

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2 toddlers among 6 who drowned in Oklahoma around July 4 holiday

Six people drowned across Oklahoma around the Fourth of July holiday, including two toddlers, and none reportedly was wearing a life jacket.

Swimmers, particularly young children, should be carefully watched because it can be hard to tell when a person is drowning, experts say.

They are usually silent and not moving much, contrary to some popular depictions of people screaming and thrashing about.

“They don’t appear to be in any huge distress,” Dr. LaMont Cavanagh, sports medicine specialist with University of Oklahoma Physicians in Tulsa, told the Tulsa World in 2014.

Stephen Maxwell, 34, of Ardmore reportedly drowned in Lake Murray in Carter County after being seen struggling in the water about 7 p.m. June 29. Maxwell reportedly jumped from a stopped boat’s swim deck. A witness saw him struggling in the water and tried to rescue him, but Maxwell submerged.

Using sonar, Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers found his body in 26 feet of water the next morning.

An Austin, Texas, man died Thursday when he reportedly jumped from a boat near the North Shore swim beach at Lake Altus.

Robert Kollasch, 56, reportedly jumped into about 5 feet of water and never resurfaced. Bystanders pulled him from the water.

Despite resuscitation efforts, Kollasch was pronounced dead at Elkview General Hospital in Hobart, according to a news release.

A 4-year-old boy drowned at Lake Murray in Love County about 1 p.m. Saturday. He reportedly jumped from the shore with his juvenile cousins and resurfaced not breathing and unconscious.

Despite life-saving efforts by family and a park ranger, he was pronounced dead.

On Sunday, a 4-year-old girl drowned on the north end of Lake Eufaula in McIntosh County after disappearing from a home that morning, according to a news release. The body of Vivienne Suzanne McDaniel was found about 20 feet from shore in 5 feet of water.

Two others drowned in separate incidents at Turner Falls in Murray County on Wednesday and Friday, according to a report from The Oklahoman.

When water gets into someone’s lungs, the throat usually closes off, meaning the person can’t speak or make sound. When they lose oxygen to the brain, they pass out, Cavanagh said.

Parents with a child playing in a pool should be concerned if the child isn’t making any noise, he said.

“You really have to be paying attention,” he said.

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