A review of the deaths or near-deaths of 82 Oklahoma children reveals the Oklahoma Department of Human Services received 430 complaints of abuse and neglect in the time leading up to and surrounding their personal tragedies, according to a draft report prepared by staff of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth. That is an average of more than five complaints per child and once again raises questions about DHS' effectiveness in protecting children after abuse has been reported. Oklahoma has had several highly publicized child deaths in recent years, including Kelsey Smith-Briggs and Aja Johnson, where subsequent inquiries revealed DHS had received numerous complaints of abuse and neglect in the months leading up to their deaths. The draft, to be presented to the full commission today, focuses on how DHS employees handled abuse and neglect complaints that mentioned drug or alcohol use as problems within families in which children later died or nearly died.
What was foundResearchers found that drug or alcohol use was reported in 136 of the 430 complaints concerning 55 of the children. Thirty-seven of those 136 complaints were screened out by DHS workers and supervisors who concluded the substance of the complaints, including the presence or use of alcohol or drugs, did not amount to abuse or neglect. The 37 screened-out complaints related to 27 families, and in all 27 families, DHS later received referrals that concerned the death or near death of a child. "Very few referrals are accepted as an investigation or as an assessment based upon the use or abuse of a substance, alone,” the report states. Researchers wrote DHS workers inappropriately screened out 10 of the complaints based on DHS policies. The fact that many children died or nearly died after complaints regarding their families were "appropriately screened out” could indicate a need to review DHS policies for screening out complaints, acknowledged commission Director Lisa Smith. "Although the presence or use of the substance may not meet the criteria for an investigation or an assessment, the behaviors in the home could nevertheless be threats to child safety, and a referral for substance abuse services would be both helpful and preventive for the family,” the report states. Even in cases where DHS recommended services for such families there was usually no documentation indicating workers ever followed up, the report said. Researchers said they examined 31 complaints where services for families were recommended and found in 22 of those cases there was no documentation to show any followup was done. Beth Scott, DHS spokeswoman, said the agency changed its policies in March so cases in which services have been recommended will not be closed until workers have documented the recommended services have been provided. Scott said the state has been transitioning to a centralized statewide abuse and neglect hot line since November and that should help eliminate some of the inconsistencies in screening out complaints. Scott said when calls were screened it doesn't necessarily mean nothing was done. "The caller may have been advised to call law enforcement if the report concerned substance abuse,” she said. Scott also noted that the 10 calls that researchers contend were inappropriately screened out only constitute 7 percent of the 136 calls researchers examined. Researchers said all the case histories they examined involved children who died or nearly died between Jan. 1, 2008, and Nov. 1, 2009. The study did not cover deaths or near deaths which occurred in residential facilities, foster homes or day care homes, even if those deaths occurred during the reviewed time frame, researchers wrote.