©Copyright 2013, The Oklahoman
Seventy-eight children in custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services are missing.
Thirty-eight of them have been missing for more than three months.
“That is ridiculous,” said Michelle Zettee, of Midwest City, a former volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. “There needs to be some accountability here … When DHS has a child removed from his or her parents — especially when the reason for the removal stems from allegations of neglect rather than abuse — I feel that DHS should have as much responsibility to provide adequate supervision and ensure the child's safety as they are attempting to require from the child's parents.”
Millie Carpenter, DHS's permanency and well-being program administrator, and Melissa Jones, a DHS program supervisor, insist there is accountability, but say preventing children from running away is not as easy as it might sound.
Carpenter said staff members believe all 78 children who are currently missing are runaways and not children who have been abducted.
There are more than 10,000 children in state custody. Most live in foster homes, while many others stay in shelters and group homes. Many of the children want more independence and some choose to run away, she said.
Some children run away to reunite with parents that state officials have deemed unsuitable, but “I've had just as many run just because they didn't want to follow rules,” Jones said.
“For the most part, we don't put children who are in DHS custody in a lock up facility,” Jones said. “They are in facilities where they can walk away.”
Carpenter said staff members try to persuade children not to run away, when they know their intentions, but that doesn't always work. The extent to which workers will use physical means to keep a child from leaving depends on the age of the child and any disabilities or other limitations they have that might make them particularly vulnerable, she said.
DHS has a strict protocol that must be followed when a child does run away, she said.
A report must be filed immediately with law enforcement and the district attorney, child's attorney and parents, if they still have legal rights, the policy states.
If the child has been abducted or is deemed to be at “high risk of harm,” the DHS worker is required to notify the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for search assistance and may request assistance from the Office of Inspector General.
The national center will then post the child's name, picture and other information on its website and seek the public's help in locating the youth.
Zettee, the former CASA worker, contends that what DHS policy states and what really is going on are two different things.
Zettee said when her CASA class toured DHS's Oklahoma City shelter, the shelter director told them that older children were free to leave at any time and “if the child is above the age of 15, or sometimes if they are above the age of 13 and ‘seem particularly mature,' the shelter staff will not follow the child nor will the police be called,” when they run away.
Rebecca Price, director of the Pauline E. Mayer Children's Shelter in Oklahoma City, said there must have been some misunderstanding.
“That's not our policy nor is that what we do,” Price said.
If a child is under 13 or over 13 and intellectually disabled, staff members will physically stop them from leaving, Price said.
“If they are 13 and over, we do everything we can verbally do to stop them,” she said.
In all cases where a child runs away, a police report is filed and a National Crime Information Center confirmation number is received, she said.
The staff member on duty when a child runs away also is required to prepare an incident report and document what was done to try to stop them, she said.
“But it's not a locked facility,” she said. “They haven't done anything against the law.”
Zettee said she has personal knowledge concerning DHS's handling of a case involving a 15-year-old girl who ran away from the Oklahoma City shelter, because the girl's mother lived with her for a time.
The girl was allowed to leave the shelter without interference, Zettee said.
For over a year, the girl was “staying with her abusive, drug addicted 19-year-old boyfriend,” Zettee said.
The girl's mother “reported to DHS several times that her daughter had come around and told her where she was and nobody was doing anything to get the child back in custody,” Zettee said.
Zettee said the girl's mother moved out and she has lost track of the case in recent months, but as far as she knows, the girl still may be listed as missing.
“I fail to see how moving a child from a situation with ‘inadequate' supervision to a situation with no supervision benefits the child in any way,” Zettee said.
As a supervisor, Jones said she has never known any of her staff not to be diligent in their efforts to locate a missing child.
“We're going to be out looking,” she said. “The foster parents are going to be out looking. They're concerned.”
“In 11 years with the department, more than half of that in management, I've never had to reprimand a worker for not making a very diligent effort to find a child,” Jones said. “That's never been an issue in all the dozens of people that I've supervised and worked alongside.”
“If we knew where the child was, it would be the expectation to inform police and have them follow up on the pickup order,” Carpenter said. “There should not be a situation where a worker is doing what they're expected to do and just allowing a child to live somewhere without following through on reporting that to the police and trying to get that child recovered.”
“It wouldn't be condoned,” she said.
Carpenter said courts have flexibility to change a child's placement to the home they have run away to if that home is investigated and deemed appropriate.
Carpenter said she only knows of one child who died within the past year while on the run from state custody.
She said the girl died from a medical condition and had been in contact with relatives while she was missing.
Active efforts were being made to locate her at the time of her death, Carpenter said.