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Oklahoma child welfare system poised for change

After years of failures in Oklahoma's child welfare system that often ended in child deaths, the state appears poised for change.

Pushing lawmakers to act quickly is a pending settlement of a Tulsa federal class-action lawsuit that alleges Oklahoma's child-welfare system is so bad children are being harmed by their stays in state shelters and foster homes and their civil rights are being violated.

DHS commissioners approved the proposed settlement Tuesday night, and the state's Contingency Review Board is scheduled to consider it this week.

The lawsuit was filed by Children's Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group that has won victories and settlements in similar lawsuits in other states.

Child abuse rates

Federal statistics show DHS's reported rate of children being abused in state custody was among the five highest rates in the country from federal fiscal year 2002 to 2008.

The rate would have been even worse if DHS officials hadn't improperly excluded cases where children were abused by staff in state facilities, lawyers for Children's Rights contend.

The federal judge handling the case has identified high DHS worker caseloads and failure of workers to complete required child visits as areas of concern.

DHS disciplinary records reviewed by The Oklahoman confirmed problem areas. Several workers were disciplined for falsifying reports to make it appear they had done child welfare visits when they hadn't.

Oklahoma County District Judge Roger Stuart, who spent years presiding over child abuse and neglect cases, said high DHS caseloads contribute to worker burnout and a high worker turnover rate.

However, he said the problem is more complex than that.

Treatment facilities

Stuart said he saw abusive parents with drug and alcohol abuse problems, mental illnesses, low intelligence or a combination of the three. A shortage of treatment facilities is an underlying problem not easily solved, he said.

State Sen. Clark Jolley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature has been aggressive responding to past tragedies with new legislation, but said he's not sure whether new laws have helped or hindered the situation.

“There's not a silver bullet,” said Jolley, R-Edmond. “I'm concerned what we've done is created a situation where workers are focused more on completing a checklist than looking at what's best for a child.”

Evaluating how frequently DHS is successful in intervening in families to halt reported abuse is impossible because of secrecy laws written to protect the privacy of child victims. Those same laws prevent the public from knowing when the system is failing children.

Ryan Luke Law

The one exception is child death cases. The Oklahoman has been able to look at prior DHS involvement with children in certain child death cases only because of a 1996 law that grants access to such records where a child has been killed and a person charged with the crime. That law was enacted in response to the 1995 beating death of McAlester toddler Ryan Luke.

Rep. Nelson said the public needs more information about DHS actions in child abuse cases so trends can be discerned and efforts directed at prevention. Nelson said he's working on legislation to do that but has met resistance from agency officials who cite privacy concerns and say it would be expensive.

The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth in a 2010 report reviewed the deaths and near-deaths of 82 children and found DHS had received 430 complaints of abuse and neglect leading up to and surrounding their personal tragedies. That was an average of more than five complaints per child.

The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth has a diverse mission that includes reviewing child death and near-death cases to identify recurring causes and ways they might be prevented. The agency is investigating whether new policies should be implemented requiring stronger action when new mothers test positive for drugs.

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