DHS committee makes 37 recommendations after studying Oklahoma child deaths

A special review committee was formed by Oklahoma Department of Human Services commissioners in 2011 after they were criticized for failing to publicly address child deaths.
by Nolan Clay Published: April 5, 2013

A special committee that reviewed what role DHS had in child deaths since 2010 identified problems at the agency but also concluded there appeared to be “much blame to go around.”

In a report released Thursday, the committee made 37 recommendations that could help prevent child deaths.

At the top of the list was a call for better cooperation between child welfare workers at the Department of Human Services and judges, public defenders, district attorneys, educators, health officials, law enforcement and others.

“It is not just OKDHS who is responsible to protect children,” the committee reported.

The committee also called for training for teachers, doctors, day care workers and others in identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect.

In one child death case, both an apartment manager and assistant apartment manager had urged a mother to get medical help for her child but neither “called authorities to report the seriousness of the child's obvious frail, listless physical condition,” according to the 38-page report.

DHS commissioners created the special review committee in 2011 after being heavily criticized for not publicly addressing the deaths of children in DHS care. A new commissioner, Wes Lane, took charge of the special committee and recruited experts from outside the agency to help in the review.

The special committee finished the report even though voters in November abolished the DHS commission.

The special committee looked broadly at 135 cases of child deaths and near deaths between January 2010 and mid-2012.

It then selected for an in-depth review 31 of those cases where a child died from abuse or neglect and DHS had some level of involvement with the family in the previous 12 months. Only one of those children actually was in state custody at the time of her death.

‘Larger questions'

The committee also did an in-depth review of five cases of near child deaths.

“Our role was not to serve as a proverbial judge and jury as to who did what in each case but rather to ask larger questions,” Lane, a former Oklahoma County district attorney, told reporters Thursday.

DHS officials said the agency already is making major changes to its child welfare practices. Those changes include hiring more child welfare workers, paying the workers more and reducing their caseloads.

DHS agreed to make many of the reforms when it settled a class-action lawsuit over the care of foster children.

The Legislature also required changes.

“I'm upbeat,” Lane said. “I'm upbeat about where things are going. I'm encouraged. I hope the public is, too.”

In a letter at the beginning of the report, Lane wrote, “Was OKDHS doing everything it could possibly do to protect children? The answer is clearly, no. Are they working hard to correct that? The answer is clearly, yes.”

New DHS Director Ed Lake said the agency is trying to support its child welfare workers and help them make decisions.

“As we like to say: ‘We're all in this together,'” Lake said.

The committee called for better cooperation among those involved with at-risk children because it found failures to communicate in cases resulted in serious consequences.

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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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