“Does it take a pickup load of dead babies before we decide to act?”
Those words — spoken in frustration by the chairman of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth — captured what many have been demanding to know.
For years, The Oklahoman has investigated and reported stories detailing how state children have died from child abuse.
Many deaths appeared preventable, having occurred after multiple complaints of abuse and neglect had been reported to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
While the public voiced outrage, the commissioners who oversee DHS initially appeared indifferent — never discussing the deaths in public meetings or addressing what could have been done to prevent them.
When the Legislature commissioned a $420,000 taxpayer-funded study on how to fix DHS problems, many commissioners admitted they didn't even bother to read it.
Recently, things have begun to change.
Gov. Mary Fallin — citing the “appearance of lax oversight” — appointed two new commissioners in September. They were placed in charge of two new committees that will review child deaths and examine the organizational structure and oversight responsibilities of the commission.
Prepared to act
State Rep. Richard Morrissette, vice chairman of a House subcommittee on human services, said lawmakers also have heard the public's concerns and are prepared to act.
“I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make some serious changes,” Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said of DHS. “We need to streamline it, make it more efficient, mean and lean so it serves its mission statement.”
House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said the Legislature has adopted dozens of reform measures since 2007 in response to specific child deaths and system breakdowns. However, he acknowledged being frustrated by the Legislature's past inability to bring accountability to the agency because DHS is such a politically powerful bureaucracy.
Steele likened many past reforms to “putting a bandage on a wound that's bigger than the bandage.”
“We can no longer afford to be reactive. It's time for us to be proactive,” he said. “Today and moving forward, we are strongly considering comprehensive reforms, systemic changes.”
To identify root problems, state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, has led a committee that has been traveling statewide, talking to front-line workers to gather reform ideas.
“There seems to be a disconnect between leadership and front-line workers,” Steele said.
“We're at the grassroots level and very much
Steele said lawmakers are focusing on four main areas: DHS's governance structure, personnel policies, agency structure and resource realignment.
“Currently we have a nine-member citizen board that is appointed by the governor,” he said, noting members of that DHS governing board serve nine-year terms. “I'm not convinced that is the most effective governance structure.”
A public vote would be required to change that since the board was created by the Oklahoma Constitution, he said.
Personnel policies need to be developed that reward good workers while making it possible to dismiss underperforming personnel, he said.
And the organizational structure of DHS is “hard to follow” and makes it difficult to hold people accountable, he said.
Nelson, chairman of the House human services subcommittee, said a series of reforms may need to be adopted over the next three legislative sessions to accomplish what lawmakers believe needs to be done.
Pushing lawmakers to act quickly is a pending settlement of a Tulsa federal class-action lawsuit that alleges Oklahoma's child-welfare system is so bad children are being harmed by their stays in state shelters and foster homes and their civil rights are being violated.
DHS commissioners approved the proposed settlement Tuesday night, and the state's Contingency Review Board is scheduled to consider it this week.
The lawsuit was filed by Children's Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group that has won victories and settlements in similar lawsuits in other states.
Child abuse rates
Federal statistics show DHS's reported rate of children being abused in state custody was among the five highest rates in the country from federal fiscal year 2002 to 2008.
The rate would have been even worse if DHS officials hadn't improperly excluded cases where children were abused by staff in state facilities, lawyers for Children's Rights contend.
The federal judge handling the case has identified high DHS worker caseloads and failure of workers to complete required child visits as areas of
DHS disciplinary records reviewed by The Oklahoman confirmed problem areas. Several workers were disciplined for falsifying reports to make it appear they had done child welfare visits when they hadn't.
Oklahoma County District Judge Roger Stuart, who spent years presiding over child abuse and neglect cases, said high DHS caseloads contribute to worker burnout and a high worker turnover rate.
However, he said the problem is more complex than that.
Stuart said he saw abusive parents with drug and alcohol abuse problems, mental illnesses, low intelligence or a combination of the three. A shortage of treatment facilities is an underlying problem not easily solved, he said.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature has been aggressive responding to past tragedies with new legislation, but said he's not sure whether new laws have helped or hindered the situation.
“There's not a silver bullet,” said Jolley, R-Edmond. “I'm concerned what we've done is created a situation where workers are focused more on completing a checklist than looking at what's best for a child.”
Evaluating how frequently DHS is successful in intervening in families to halt reported abuse is impossible because of secrecy laws written to protect the privacy of child victims. Those same laws prevent the public from knowing when the system is failing children.
Ryan Luke Law
The one exception is child death cases. The Oklahoman has been able to look at prior DHS involvement with children in certain child death cases only because of a 1996 law that grants access to such records where a child has been killed and a person charged with the crime. That law was enacted in response to the 1995 beating death of McAlester toddler Ryan Luke.
Rep. Nelson said the public needs more information about DHS actions in child abuse cases so trends can be discerned and efforts directed at prevention. Nelson said he's working on legislation to do that but has met resistance from agency officials who cite privacy concerns and say it would be
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth in a 2010 report reviewed the deaths and near-deaths of 82 children and found DHS had received 430 complaints of abuse and neglect leading up to and surrounding their personal tragedies. That was an average of more than five complaints per child.
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth has a diverse mission that includes reviewing child death and near-death cases to identify recurring causes and ways they might be prevented. The agency is investigating whether new policies should be implemented requiring stronger action when new mothers test positive for drugs.