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Missing: 78 children from Oklahoma Department of Human Services custody

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.
by Randy Ellis Modified: August 10, 2013 at 2:36 am •  Published: August 11, 2013
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©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.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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