TO be sure, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services could have done better in many of the cases where children in the DHS system died or got badly hurt. This is reflected in a report submitted last week by a special committee tasked with researching the role DHS played in a number of those tragedies.
But what shouldn't get lost is the panel's belief that plenty of blame must be shared. We can all do better. For the sake of our children, we must do better.
We can notify authorities when we think a child is being mistreated. We can speak up in the grocery store, instead of looking the other way, when we see a child being knocked around by a parent or guardian. We can work to see that fewer girls get pregnant at 14 or 15, something that all too often ends badly for the babies.
Breakdowns within DHS, the agency responsible for the care of battered and abused Oklahoma children, contributed to several high-profile child deaths. Those cases produced a groundswell that resulted in wholesale structural changes at DHS, changes that we all hope will reduce the number of child deaths. Yet no government agency can cure the many societal ills that help produce battered and abused kids in the first place.
Wes Lane, a former DHS commissioner and chairman of the special committee, pointed out that a stable home environment is crucial. In homes where a single parent is cohabitating, the rate of maltreatment of children is much higher than in two-parent households. Naturally the use of drugs and alcohol in a household moves the needle into the danger zone for children as well.
How many times have we read of children being beaten by the boyfriend of their mother, and authorities finding that one or both of the adults abused drugs? It happens every day across Oklahoma.
Lane's group, comprising 21 professionals in fields ranging from child welfare to law enforcement to mental health, worked from October 2011 through February of this year. It looked broadly at 135 cases of child deaths and near deaths, and did further study of 31 cases where a child died of neglect or abuse and DHS had some contact with the family in the previous year.
The panel found that DHS could have done its job better. It offered a number of recommendations. But it also noted that most times, child welfare cases “are worked thoroughly and professionally.” This should please DHS employees who are overworked and underpaid while dealing every day with troubling and difficult cases.
Another major point: The committee said better communication among those involved in child welfare — DHS, law enforcement, the courts, schools, etc. — could have made a difference in many of the cases they studied. The days of one hand not knowing what the other is doing must end.
Even if they do, even if every committee recommendation is acted upon by DHS, the sad reality is that Oklahoma children will continue to die of abuse and neglect. The goal should be to keep this from occurring once those children have entered a system that's meant to protect them from further harm.
“There is work to be done and the Department of Human Services must get their part right,” Lane said in the report. “But all of Oklahoma must work to (1) fix the system of investigating and protecting children and (2) work to prevent child abuse and neglect.”
Are we — all of us — willing to do that?