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Strengthening Traditional Families

Strengthening Traditional Families 

Stable family life is essential for economic prosperity in Oklahoma. 

by Gregory J. Palumbo, Ph.D. 

As the 4th Annual Pro-Family Day Rally at the Capitol approaches this spring, it is time to reflect on where Oklahoma is headed regarding traditional family policy. Five years ago the well being of Oklahoma's families did not raise concern in many. They received less publicity than hogs or chickens. Yet the tumble in Oklahoma's economic prosperity over the past two decades has followed and been exacerbated by the increasing number of broken families. In this same time span Oklahoma dropped from near the middle in per capita income to near the bottom for the nation. 

Broken families due to divorce, families not forming, teen pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births are all indicators of a bleak economic picture. Oklahoma became a leader nationally in these undesirable characteristics while our marriage rate plummeted since 1980. The documented problems for children that come from broken families include development, education, social ills, and achievement. These realities paint a dim future for Oklahoma citizens and our economy. Children are the future of our state and nation. It is imperative that Oklahoma refocus its attention to strengthening families. That goal is as important to Oklahoma's economic future as passage of Right-to-Work, workers compensation reform, and reducing the high state income tax. 

Oklahoma has in the past few years begun to focus on the status and health of families. Governor Keating attended our 1st Pro-family Day Rally at the Capitol in 1997 and questioned the lack of involvement of churches and the message they were delivering on marriage and divorce to their members. Oklahoma had experienced too much of the notion-- forget about it and get on with your life. Then in 1998, governor Keating embraced the idea of strengthening families during his State of the State address. His goal was for Oklahoma to cut its divorce rate, teen pregnancy rate, and out-of-wedlock birth rates by 2010. This in turn led to the Marriage Initiative in 1999 and the recruitment of clergy to address family formation and stability. 

The Oklahoma legislature has also begun to question former policies, programs, and laws that served to undermine traditional family formation and stability. Education about the consequences of policies and laws concerning families and children has been a paramount focus of the pro-family movement--locally and nationwide. Today most understand that good parenting is not one parent paying child support while the other drops the child off to someone else to watch or teach. The types of programs to fund have been debated and solutions have been sought. 

The Children's Rights Council (CRC) recognized five Oklahoma legislators, Representatives Bill Graves, Odillia Dank, Russ Roach, and Senators Owen Laughlin and James Williamson, as well as Gov. Keating for an equal timeshare law in temporary custody hearings passed in 1999. The intent of this law was to keep both parents actively involved in being parents of their children upon separation or divorce. A national study by the CRC (1998) found that states that ensure both parents are involved upon family dissolution have the most rapidly deceasing divorce rates-the parents save their marriages. 

The 2001 Oklahoma legislative session will be exciting. More laws pertaining to families has been introduced than anytime in the recent past. One area that will be addressed is the elimination of faultless divorce and/or requiring a lengthy separation period (seven years or more) when there are minor children. Both parents should be made to focus on the children they create before getting on with their life. This is truly about the best interest of children. The elimination of "no-fault" divorce should also make more couples honor their marriage vows, and work to save a troubled marriage. 

Abstinence education programs keep many young adults from having a child. So what about young parents of children born out-of-wedlock? The best solution is marriage. Recent research indicates that although marriage may be the intention of these parents, it is lost once state agencies get involved. A bill addresses this issue in 2001 by creating a program to provide premarital counseling, pay for a simple marriage for qualifying poor parents, and providing post marital counseling°X but only if the couples marry. These parents need an alternative message about the choices they make, the consequences they and their children face, and to know that both will be held accountable and responsible for their actions. Importantly, a small amount of state money spent early can save tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars later per family in public assistance and social ills. Covenant marriage legislation will again be introduced in Oklahoma °X legislation that has been blocked by Senator Brad Henry in the past. 

Plenty of injustices also exist in current Oklahoma code based on common laws that no longer apply to a non-agrarian society. With the advent of DNA testing, it is possible to identify the parents of a child and hold them accountable for the child they create. No longer should husbands find themselves divorced while paying for some other's offspring. Nor should men be surprised with paternity papers years after a child is born to get money, when deprivation of the child from a parents and extended family should be classified as child abuse. The practice of rewarding bad behavior in the name of children, often destroying multiple families, must end in Oklahoma. Reform of these injustices is long overdue when modern DNA paternity testing has demonstrated false paternity rates and illegitimacy rates of 20% or more. We must dissociate the child's best interest from cash payments, and make emotional support the top concern it should be. 

Government exists to serve the people and not for the purpose of serving special interests and creating more government. We need adoption, foster care, child protective services, safety nets, etc. but we should not be placing their interests before traditional families and extended family. Further, money should not be the only way to ensure your rights and those of your children. There is a bill introduced again this year that reinforces the hierarchal placement of children to the other parent or extended family before state care. Another bill will require notification of the other parent and extended family if a child is abandoned by the custodial parent, prior to automatically granting custody to whoever are watching the child. 

Conversely, bills that restrict the rights of parents or that will promote continued irresponsibility and accountability of parents have been introduced again. Baby abandonment is one example. It is a bill that allows one parent who does not want to be a parent abandon a baby legally, regardless of the other parents wishes. It completely eliminates extended family as a choice for placement. Would you as a parent or grandparent agree that your child or grandchild should be given away without having a say? Already information exists on how to abandon a baby legally in states that have passed this type of law. Most problems in adoption occur because of one parent's wish. We do not need this law since adoption already provides a legal means to give up parental rights-of both parents. 

The recognition that children do best with two parents who have a vested interest, will lead to proposed changes in family law practices in Oklahoma. Childhood development experts and others find that involvement of both parents in rearing children is crucial for the healthy development of children--beginning at birth. Reliance on the tender years doctrine myth or the myth that children need stability, i.e. being with the other parent is unstable, while being at daycare, in the care of others or as latchkey kids is OK, defies common sense and logic. Since recent research shows judges statewide openly defy current Oklahoma law concerning temporary custody orders (specifically, 43 O.S. °±110.1) by not awarding equal timeshare, this law needs to be strengthened. It is long past due, based on consequences to children of fatherlessness and broken families, to change these laws and practices. 

The Association of Professional Oklahoma Educators identified parent and student apathy as well as broken families as top concerns when it comes to student performance in education. One problem that exists is that by law and custody orders, one parent is typically excluded from being anything but a babysitter at best, and has no role in a child's education. A recommended parenting plan bill, for parents who cannot agree on a parenting schedule, shares parental responsibility during the school year by giving responsibility to each parent on differing days during the month in consistent blocks of time. 

There are many other bills introduced this session. Some will again deal with abortion, partial birth abortion, parental notification for minors, and the abortion pill RU-486. Others will attempt to further strengthen our defense of marriage law by defining what is marriage. Then there are bills that focus on empowering and enabling parents and family to rear and educate their children vs. creating another band-aid program. The hallmark of any successful social policy and program is its elimination or drastic diminution with time because it solves a problem°X this should always be the goal and measurement for success. 

In summary, it is an exciting time to be in Oklahoma as a pro-family revolution continues across the state at all levels. Oklahoma should be cutting edge in addressing family stability and formation since our state has led the nation in family breakdown. It is about time we relearn our lessons from the history of civilization and our nation°Xthat God, marriage and traditional families are the bedrock upon which liberty, freedom, and civilization exists. Stable family life is essential for economic prosperity in Oklahoma and the future of Oklahoma. May the rest of the nation follow our lead. 

Gregory J. Palumbo, Ph.D. is Director of Oklahomans for Families Alliance, Oklahoma City



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