Federal officials are threatening Oklahoma with a loss of millions of dollars if the state continues to make public the histories of children killed or nearly killed by child abuse or neglect.
Complying would mean Oklahomans would no longer have access to the types of reports that in the past have revealed massive failures in Oklahoma's child welfare system that contributed to deaths of children like Kelsey Smith-Briggs and Serenity Deal.
However, ignoring the demand would place Oklahoma's Department of Human Services at risk of losing more than $50 million in federal funds, officials say.
State and national child welfare reformers are incensed — calling the threat “irresponsible” and “unfathomable.”
“To follow what this letter says would be to go backward to perpetuate the culture that has led to the point of a class-action lawsuit and the death of a lot of children,” said state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who is working on reform legislation that would make even more child welfare information available to the public.
Sparking their concern is a May 9 letter to Preston Doerflinger, interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, from Janis Brown, the Dallas-based regional manager for the federal Children's Bureau, Administration for Children & Families.
“Oklahoma's Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and Children's Justice Act funding will be in jeopardy if the Administration for Children and Families determines the state is not compliant with these requirements and the deficiencies remain uncorrected,” the letter says.
“We think the federal Administration for Children & Families is just wrong,” said Elisa Weichel, administrative director and staff attorney for the national Children's Advocacy Institute.
How much to tell?
At issue is how much information the public has a right to know when a state's publicly funded child welfare system fails so badly that children like Serenity and Kelsey end up dead or critically injured.
Serenity, 5, died in June from a severe head injury less than a month after she began living with her father at the recommendation of DHS. Serenity was placed with her dad even though she was injured twice in January 2011, suffering bruises and blackened eyes during overnight visits with him.
Kelsey, 2, died from child abuse in the home of her mother and stepfather. A judge allowed her to remain in the home even though she had experienced serious injuries that included a broken collarbone, bruises and two broken legs in the months leading up to her 2005 death.
Normally, information about state child welfare activities is kept secret to protect the privacy of children and their families. However, The Oklahoman was able to report on what happened to Serenity and Kelsey because of an exception in federal and state confidentiality laws.
Under the exception in current state law, DHS and an oversight agency, the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, are required to prepare and release reports when requested after a child has died from child abuse if the caregiver has been charged.
Those reports identify prior child abuse complaints regarding the families and what state child welfare workers did in response to those complaints.