Cultural shift in Oklahoma needed to reduce abuse-neglect numbers

The Oklahoman Editorial Modified: January 2, 2014 at 5:41 am •  Published: January 2, 2014

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.

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