Child welfare investigators are changing the way they decide when to remove a child from a home on allegations of abuse and neglect. "We always did screening assessments,” said Donna Girdner, a Department of Human Services administrative programs officer who trains child welfare workers. "We just weren’t getting enough information to assess risk correctly.” It went with the motto: When in doubt, take them out, she said. Oklahoma is second in the nation for removal of children for abuse and neglect — a rate of 13.4 children per 1,000. Only Nebraska is higher. The national rate is 6.9 children per 1,000. The rate is a concern because forcing multiple moves can cause trauma for children and hinder high-risk families from staying together.
Different definitionTo lower the removal rate and keep more families intact, a task force of child welfare advocates and workers was formed in 2007 and the initial screening was refined. A family team meeting component was added, and the way foster and biological parents interact has changed, Girdner said. Officials say the state’s legal definition of when to remove a child is broader than other states. Oklahoma allows for removal on risk of danger and not just "imminent” danger. Also, Tulsa and Oklahoma counties have agreements that allow law enforcement to place children in custody without a DHS consultation. Pending legislation proposes to require DHS involvement in all child removals. Oklahoma courts have the final say when a child enters and leaves state custody. "Now, we are getting a lot of information up front so we can determine the safety of the child ,” Girdner said. "Hopefully, through the process, we will have smaller numbers on the back end.” County offices have been adopting aspects of the model during the past year. It will be fully implemented July 1. In the past 19 months, the number of children being removed from their homes has been reduced by 16 percent to its lowest point in five years, said DHS officials. "The goal is to reduce the number of children in foster care, increase stability in families and reduce turnover of staff,” Girdner said. Forget checklists. Go with observations and communicate with the parent about what might have happened, Girdner tells a class of child-welfare trainees. Usually, a parent denies abuse or neglect when asked directly. So, questions need to be more probing. For cigarette burns on a child, ask about who smokes, where people smoke in the home and if any of the smokers have access to the child. Some problems might be situational, such as stress from a recent job loss or failed marriage. Others might be generational, and the parent is not aware he or she is putting a child at risk of harm.
Meetings can helpA family team meeting component has been added to give parents extra support following an abuse or neglect allegation. In Oklahoma County, holding these meetings has kept 122 children out of foster care in a six-month period, Girdner said. "Contrary to belief, we don’t want to take kids out of their homes. We want to keep kids with their families.”