Oklahoma is doing a better job of preventing child abuse and neglect than national statistics reflect, said Howard Hendrick, director of the Department of Human Services.
The federal government does not require states to use a uniform definition for child maltreatment in reporting abuse and neglect statistics, so states aren't all reporting the same things, he said.
"In Oklahoma, our definition is harm or risk of harm," he said. "In some states, you must have an actual physical injury, and in some states you have a burden of proof that's clear and convincing evidence."
Because Oklahoma uses a broader definition than many states, its abuse rates appear to be worse in comparison than they would if a standard definition were used, he said.
Federal officials caution against comparing states because of the lack of uniformity, he said.
Hendrick said another problem is national child data is often several years old by the time it gets compiled and reported.
For the last seven years for which federal data is available (2002-2008), Oklahoma's reported rate of confirmed abuse or neglect of children in foster care has been among the five worst in the nation.
Hendrick said the state has done better recently, and he has seen more current data indicating Oklahoma's rate for absence of abuse or neglect in foster care is 99.8 percent, which is better than the national average of 99.63 percent.
The state has achieved that even with its broader definition of maltreatment, he said, adding that Oklahoma also has more rigorous requirements for monitoring children in foster care, so workers are more likely to see abuse.
DHS also has made improvements in retaining child welfare workers, Hendrick said. A December 2009 report indicated 55 percent of caseworkers had more than two years' experience, but Hendrick said he has seen a more recent report indicating about 69 percent have at least that much experience.
Hendrick said DHS has made major progress in speeding up adoptions.
"We've consistently been in the top five states for adopting children per capita for the past decade," he said.
As of June 30, the state had 7,970 children in foster care, including about 900 children in trial reunifications with their families, he said. The number in foster care is more than a third less than the 12,222 children in out-of-home care just three years ago, he said. The state has the fewest number of children in foster care in at least a decade, which has made caseloads more manageable, he said.
Hendrick said DHS is involved in a lot more than child welfare.
"We're handling record numbers of people in food stamps. We're a national leader in child care licensing. We're a national leader in paternity establishment for child support. We're the second best growing state in the nation for child support collections. We've won our regional award four years in a row for managing the food stamp program better than any other state in our region," he said. "There's a lot more to DHS than just child welfare."