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Gubernatorial candidates focus on Oklahoma's child abuse problems

Gubernatorial candidates Mary Fallin and Jari Askins suggest changes to reduce child abuse deaths.
BY RANDY ELLIS Modified: October 17, 2010 at 12:51 am •  Published: October 17, 2010

Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Fallin wants a thorough review of how the Oklahoma Department of Human Services screens complaints of child abuse and neglect.

Democratic opponent Jari Askins says she would issue an executive order creating a children's cabinet to establish spending priorities for improving the plight of Oklahoma children.

For years, Oklahoma has ranked among the worst states in the nation for its rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect.

Victims such as Kelsey Smith-Briggs and Aja Johnson have become examples for advocates of reform of a child welfare system that has failed to protect dozens of Oklahoma children.

DHS employees responded to multiple reports of child abuse involving Kelsey and Aja, but the two children ultimately were killed.

Report shows problems

A draft report published in June on the deaths or near-deaths of 82 Oklahoma children found DHS had received an average of five complaints per child in the time leading up to the tragedies.

Many of the complaints had been screened out as not meeting the criteria for investigation.

Treatment of children in Oklahoma's child welfare system has been described as "incomprehensible, unimaginable, outrageous and immoral" by a child welfare specialist retained by a national child advocacy group that is suing DHS in Tulsa federal court.

How to address the lawsuit and Oklahoma's child welfare problems will be among the most serious issues facing Oklahoma's next governor.

"We've got to figure out how to resolve the lawsuit," Askins said. "It's not a matter of getting out of court. It's a matter of doing the right things in the state so that there are no grounds for future lawsuits. ... These kinds of allegations are a black eye on the state, and we must reach the point where the black eye no longer exists."

Fallin agrees the state's focus regarding the lawsuit should be on "fixing our child welfare system and creating an environment where we aren't leading the nation in child abuse statistics."

"It's unfortunate that the state now has to spend money on lawyers and legal fees rather than on caseworkers and child services," Fallin said.

"But in the long run, it's not about winning or losing a lawsuit. It's about protecting our children, and that should be our main priority."

Askins thinks creating a children's cabinet and requiring the Legislature to focus on nothing but the budget every other year would allow lawmakers to look more closely at programs.

"A children's cabinet is an opportunity for the state to establish priorities and areas of focus and then make sure that everyone involved in children's programming is focused in the same direction," Askins said.

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