Frustrated by an increase in the number of physically and emotionally abused children in Oklahoma, the state Department of Human Services has turned to a foundation for help. When will this finally become an issue that prompts Oklahomans of every stripe to lend a hand?
DHS data show a 58 percent increase in the number of child victims in Oklahoma since fiscal year 2010. That year, 7,248 children were reported as harmed. During fiscal year 2013, the figure was 11,418.
DHS is enlisting the help of Casey Family Programs, a foundation based in Seattle that deals with foster care concerns nationwide. Foundation staff members are working with DHS caseworkers to dissect the agency’s data and reports. “We want to find out the cause of so many children coming into the foster care system,” DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell told the Tulsa World. “Are there any of these issues that we can control?”
The number of abuse and neglect cases has risen for a third straight year. The back end of that dovetails with the start of a reform effort at DHS called the Pinnacle Plan, which was created in 2012 as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed over treatment of Oklahoma children in foster care.
Lawmakers have provided DHS with additional funding to help implement the reforms, which include adding caseworkers, streamlining operations in child welfare services and changing the investigative process for abuse and neglect in foster care facilities. As part of the settlement, DHS must work to reduce the number of nights that infants and children spend in shelters, increase the number of foster homes and reduce caseloads for DHS workers.
The increase in the number of kids in state custody continues to bedevil DHS officials. DHS saw a drop in the number of infants in shelters early in 2013, but that improvement waned as the year went along. The number in custody has grown by about 2,000 since the middle of 2012. This growth taxes caseworkers and available foster parents and leaves the shelters in the state’s two largest cities constantly at or over capacity.
The number of children abused in Oklahoma County increased 29 percent from FY 2011 to FY 2012, according to DHS. In Tulsa County, the increase was 30 percent during that time. Other counties saw modest to significant declines in the percentage of children abused. Some saw big jumps. In Creek County, the number of cases increased by 92 percent (from 113 cases to 217).
Powell said the work being done by Casey Family Programs is focused on counties that have seen significant increases in the number of children who have had to be removed from their homes. Findings are expected to be released in January.
Deborah Smith, director of child welfare services for DHS, has said many factors could be contributing to the increase in abuse and neglect cases, including the agency’s reorganization and the fact DHS has many more case workers and supervisors than it did a few years ago. But the increase is distressing nonetheless; nationally, the number of children reported as abused and neglected has dropped for six years in a row.
A few months ago, state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who has been closely involved in DHS-related legislation, said a turnaround was always expected to take time. Cultural changes were needed, he said, not just within the agency but outside of DHS.
The latter is especially true. Until fewer Oklahomans harm their own kin, and more Oklahomans decide they want to help, improvement will be tough to come by.