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Oklahoma's Department of Human Services often faces tough decisions

Child welfare specialists, also known as “case workers,” have some of the hardest jobs in Oklahoma. A wrong decision, regardless of whether it felt right to make, can end tragically. As with any job, though, there are some happy endings.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: July 7, 2013

John Moore and his daughter were going to see the new Superman movie for Father's Day.

But a baby was born at a hospital with drugs in his system. Moore was on call. He had to go be someone else's hero.

Moore is a father to 15-year-old Travonna, but he has second set of children to care for: the kids on his caseload.

As a child welfare specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Moore works a thankless job for little pay at an agency that people love to hate.

“We're kind of looked at as law enforcement without the badge and the gun,” Moore said. “Most people have a really negative belief about DHS, and I hate to say some of it's merited, from some of our history, but I really do believe that that culture is changing.”

DHS is Oklahoma's largest state agency, with a budget of $2 billion, the bulk of it from federal money.

It is an agency in transition. After settling a class-action civil rights lawsuit against its foster care system last year, DHS has agreed to make changes, like increasing its child welfare workers' salaries, paying its foster families better and recruiting additional foster families to keep more children out of shelters.

Beyond the bureaucracy and debates at the state Capitol, there are the child welfare specialists, the case workers on the ground, working 8- to 16-hour days, trying their best to make the right decisions for every child. No one claims it's easy, and no claims they're 100 percent right every time.

Chapter 1: The investigation

Near lunch time, Moore walks into an Edmond elementary school, carrying his black bag that reads “Speak Up For Oklahoma's Children” in red letters. He shows his badge to the receptionist in the school's office lobby, and she calls for a female student, about 8 years old. When the girl arrives, she and Moore quickly head to a conference down a hallway in the back of the office.

Meanwhile, parents file into the office, bringing in Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A for their kids' lunches. There's a line of children waiting to call their parents. One girl needs money for lunch. Parents and children continue the normal lunchtime routine. Hidden behind the conference room door, the girl outlines to Moore the domestic violence she sees at home.

Last year, DHS received more than 68,000 reports of alleged child abuse or neglect of almost 116,000 children in Oklahoma. The agency found more than 5,500 of those reports to be substantiated, equaling almost 10,000 children being neglected or abused.

Moore works in Child Protective Services, part of DHS' Child Welfare Services division. He is among the first to meet children who might be suffering at the hands of adults.

A report might come to his office from the DHS abuse and neglect hotline — 1-800-522-3511 — or sometimes from police. His job is to interview children and then talk with their parents and other adults in the children's lives to better understand the situation.

“You do all you can do, and sometimes, you miss something,” Moore said. “That's every child welfare worker's worst nightmare.”

Over the years, media reports have shown that some DHS workers do not do all they can. Names like Serenity Deal and Kelsey Smith-Briggs, who both died of abuse, drum up images and stories of children where something was undoubtedly missed.

When a child dies in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Child Death Review Board looks over cases. The cases they review did not necessarily occur in the year they reviewed them.

In the board's 2012 review, it reported that two children died in foster care and another 17 children died who had an open Child Protective Services case at the time of their deaths. In 2011, the board's review showed four children in foster care at the time of their death, and 25 children who had an open Child Protective Services case at the time of their death.

Those numbers do not include near deaths. In 2012, the board reviewed and closed 15 near-death cases, including five that had a previous referral that was investigated by DHS. In 2011, the board reviewed and closed 53 near-death cases, with 16 of those having had a previous referral that was investigated by DHS.

At the Edmond school, Moore talks with the girl for about 20 minutes. They come out of the office, and her ponytail bobs as she heads back to class.

“She told me graphically how mom runs, gets the knife, dad runs behind her, mom turned and tried to cut him with the knife, and he grabbed her and he started choking her until she dropped the knife,” Moore said after the interview. “No kid should be exposed to anything like that.”

From here, Moore will try to work the case preventively, getting the girl's parents into domestic violence services. She might go stay with a relative until her parents are more stable. But if they refuse to work with him, he might have to involve a district attorney.

Before he came to DHS, Moore ran a cleaning business and volunteered in prison ministries. But for a long time, he had felt a calling to help people on a wider scale. And then one night in 2004, his 17-year-old stepson was shot and killed.

Delonte's death, in some ways, compelled Moore to become a DHS worker. He tells new workers, No, this job doesn't pay the best, the hours are long, and it can be emotionally draining.

“But if you have the heart for it, you'll love it,” he said. “If you're just doing it for a job, you're probably not going to stick around very long.”

Chapter 2: The interviews

Latasha Granillo has seen the child welfare cases that society would rather pretend don't exist.

Driving by, a person likely wouldn't notice the house where Granillo worked or suspect that this is the street where some of the worst child abuse and neglect cases in Oklahoma County are investigated.

The street is the undisclosed home to multiple agencies that all focus on child crimes. Granillo regularly is at the CARE Center, a facility where child victims and child perpetrators undergo forensic interviews.

In a forensic interview, a trained expert will ask a child non-leading questions to determine whether any abuse occurred. In the end, it's up to the children to tell whether they were abused.

“The minute it starts becoming too traumatic, they'll end it, regardless,” Granillo said. “There may be something that happened, but this kid just isn't ready to tell us right now.”

For Granillo, the hardest part is when she knows something likely happened to a child, but the child isn't ready to tell anyone. When she's working with a cooperative parent, she can sometimes get the child into counseling, where they might grow more comfortable talking about what happened.

But if the child's parent or guardian won't admit anything happened, Granillo is sometimes left at a place where she can't do much of anything.

“We can try our hardest to try and get on the same level with the parents, which usually I can, but at times, you can't,” she said.

Physical signs of abuse are not visible in about 90 percent of cases, she said. So, in some cases, the forensic interview might provide the only evidence that Granillo could use as evidence in court.

In one of Granillo's cases, part of the evidence was a video of a toddler being raped by a man who had multiple victims, including the toddler's mother. When Granillo went to an apartment complex to remove the child, family members and residents were outside, screaming at her.

“They were calling out, ‘You're the devil. How do you sleep at night? You're evil, evil, evil. How could you do this?' And just really attacking me, DHS, for removing this child, and I just was thinking in the back of my head, ‘Oh my God, you have no idea what this child has been through,'” Granillo said.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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