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DHS misrepresents number of children abused and neglected in state custody

Copyright 2011 © The Oklahoman

Oklahoma Department of Human Services officials have greatly misrepresented to the public and its governing commission the full extent of abuse and neglect of children in out-of-home state custody, documents reveal.
BY RANDY ELLIS, NOLAN CLAY AND ROBBY TRAMMELL Published: October 16, 2011
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photo - Howard Hendrick,  is the director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. He was busy and unavailable to comment on this story about the DHS underreporting abuse of children in the state's custody. Photo by Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman Archives
Howard Hendrick, is the director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. He was busy and unavailable to comment on this story about the DHS underreporting abuse of children in the state's custody. Photo by Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman Archives

Copyright 2011 © The Oklahoman

DHS officials greatly misrepresented to the public and their governing commission the number of children abused and neglected in out-of-home state custody, documents reveal.

Last December, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services issued a news release stating “99.8 percent of children in out-of-home care did not experience maltreatment while in care” during 2009.

The agency proclaimed Oklahoma was one of 24 states that met a national standard of having at least 99.68 percent of children in custody not experience confirmed abuse or neglect in out-of-home care.

The claims were false.

DHS actually ranked among the worst states in the nation, as it has for several years, The Oklahoman has confirmed. Preliminary data for 2010 indicates the state once again will fail to meet the national standard.

“It's an honest mistake,” said Sheree Powell, DHS spokeswoman. “It's not anything intentional. We were not intentionally trying to hide this.”

The agency inadvertently failed to report to the federal government some federal fiscal year 2009 cases of abuse and neglect in foster homes that took awhile to review, according to Deborah Smith, DHS director of children and family services. She blamed a computer search error for the mistake.

“I can tell you the people who discovered the data were just very disappointed that ... we had reported data that was inaccurate,” Smith said. “Very embarrassed. It really bothered them.”

The agency also deliberately did not report to the federal government instances where children were abused and neglected in state shelters or group homes.

DHS officials say they don't have to include those figures. The federal government says it should.

DHS admitted in filings for a lawsuit that 154 children were abused or neglected in state shelters and group homes in calendar year 2009.

Had the agency included that data, the state would have had to report that about 1.58 percent of children where abused or neglected while in state care, according to the attorneys for a child advocacy group that is suing the state.

That's nearly five times the acceptable national standard and the third worst rate in the nation behind only New York and Mississippi, according to data contained in a federal government report known as the Child Maltreatment 2009 report.

Powell and Smith defended the agency's decision not to report the number of children maltreated in state shelters and group homes.

In Oklahoma, complaints of abuse and neglect in state facilities are investigated by the DHS Office of Client Advocacy Investigations Unit, while allegations of abuse or neglect in foster homes are investigated by DHS child protective services workers, they said.

The federal government only requires the agency to report abuse and neglect confirmed by child protective services workers, they said.

The omission is mentioned in a brief disclosure statement contained within a thick report filed with federal officials, Smith said.

However, the Child Maltreatment 2009 report indicates children maltreated in state facilities should be included in state statistics.

It states: “The Children's Bureau established a national standard for the absence of maltreatment in foster care at 99.68 percent, defined as: ‘Of all children in foster care during the reporting period, what percent were not victims of a substantiated or indicated maltreatment by foster parents or facility staff members?'”

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