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

Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of the office of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, said Oklahoma is one of 14 states that exclude data concerning children abused and neglected in state institutions. The exclusions make those states look better in comparison to other states than they would if the figures were included, he said.

Powell said DHS Director Howard Hendrick was busy and unavailable to be interviewed. She confirmed that Hendrick and other DHS administrators review news releases before they are sent out.

Records show Smith presented the incorrect data that indicated Oklahoma had done better than the federal standard to DHS' governing commission on Sept. 29, 2010.

There is no record of staff members ever going back and telling the commission the information was incorrect, although administrators have known it for months, Powell acknowledged.

Children's Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group, is suing DHS officials in Tulsa federal court.

The group contends foster care practices in the state are so poor that children are being harmed.

Attorneys for that group have accused Hendrick and other DHS staff members of not providing the commission with information concerning areas where the agency has performed poorly.

Powell, however, contends Children's Rights has been twisting information to make DHS look bad.

“There are millions of dollars to be gained if they can succeed in a federal class-action lawsuit,” she said.

Powell said state-to-state comparisons are unreliable because different states have different standards.

For example, she said, Oklahoma policies require workers to visit foster homes more frequently than most other states.

“The more a state visits their children, the more likely abuse and/or neglect will be discovered and consequently, the worse it may look,” she said.

Different states also have different standards for confirming abuse and neglect, she said. Oklahoma is one of 10 states that use a credible evidence standard. Twenty-eight states use a preponderance of evidence standard. Other states use standards that range from “reasonable” to “clear and convincing evidence,” the Child Maltreatment 2009 report says.

The DHS statistics that show 154 children were found to have been abused or neglected in state shelters and group homes in 2009 compare to 87 who were found to have been maltreated in foster homes. Many would consider that shocking, since the number of Oklahoma children in foster homes greatly exceeds the number in state facilities.

Powell, however, said the reason for the discrepancy is the state uses much tougher standards for abuse and neglect in state institutions.

“A staff member missing a required 15-minute check” would be grounds for a finding of neglect in a state facility, she said.

Most of the findings of abuse and neglect in state facilities fall in the neglect category, she said.

Of the 154 confirmed findings of abuse and neglect in state facilities in 2009, six were categorized as abuse with injury, one as sexual abuse, 15 as confirmed abuse, 131 as neglect and one as neglect with injury, records show.

Smith noted the 154 cases of maltreatment in state facilities occurred during calendar year 2009, while statistics are reported to the federal government based on the federal fiscal year.

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