Copyright 2011 © The Oklahoman
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?'”
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.