John Moore and his daughter were going to see the new Superman movie for Father's Day.
But a baby was born at a hospital with drugs in his system. Moore was on call. He had to go be someone else's hero.
Moore is a father to 15-year-old Travonna, but he has second set of children to care for: the kids on his caseload.
As a child welfare specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Moore works a thankless job for little pay at an agency that people love to hate.
“We're kind of looked at as law enforcement without the badge and the gun,” Moore said. “Most people have a really negative belief about DHS, and I hate to say some of it's merited, from some of our history, but I really do believe that that culture is changing.”
DHS is Oklahoma's largest state agency, with a budget of $2 billion, the bulk of it from federal money.
It is an agency in transition. After settling a class-action civil rights lawsuit against its foster care system last year, DHS has agreed to make changes, like increasing its child welfare workers' salaries, paying its foster families better and recruiting additional foster families to keep more children out of shelters.
Beyond the bureaucracy and debates at the state Capitol, there are the child welfare specialists, the case workers on the ground, working 8- to 16-hour days, trying their best to make the right decisions for every child. No one claims it's easy, and no claims they're 100 percent right every time.
Chapter 1: The investigation
Near lunch time, Moore walks into an Edmond elementary school, carrying his black bag that reads “Speak Up For Oklahoma's Children” in red letters. He shows his badge to the receptionist in the school's office lobby, and she calls for a female student, about 8 years old. When the girl arrives, she and Moore quickly head to a conference down a hallway in the back of the office.
Meanwhile, parents file into the office, bringing in Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A for their kids' lunches. There's a line of children waiting to call their parents. One girl needs money for lunch. Parents and children continue the normal lunchtime routine. Hidden behind the conference room door, the girl outlines to Moore the domestic violence she sees at home.
Last year, DHS received more than 68,000 reports of alleged child abuse or neglect of almost 116,000 children in Oklahoma. The agency found more than 5,500 of those reports to be substantiated, equaling almost 10,000 children being neglected or abused.
Moore works in Child Protective Services, part of DHS' Child Welfare Services division. He is among the first to meet children who might be suffering at the hands of adults.
A report might come to his office from the DHS abuse and neglect hotline — 1-800-522-3511 — or sometimes from police. His job is to interview children and then talk with their parents and other adults in the children's lives to better understand the situation.
“You do all you can do, and sometimes, you miss something,” Moore said. “That's every child welfare worker's worst nightmare.”
Over the years, media reports have shown that some DHS workers do not do all they can. Names like Serenity Deal and Kelsey Smith-Briggs, who both died of abuse, drum up images and stories of children where something was undoubtedly missed.
When a child dies in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Child Death Review Board looks over cases. The cases they review did not necessarily occur in the year they reviewed them.
In the board's 2012 review, it reported that two children died in foster care and another 17 children died who had an open Child Protective Services case at the time of their deaths. In 2011, the board's review showed four children in foster care at the time of their death, and 25 children who had an open Child Protective Services case at the time of their death.
Those numbers do not include near deaths. In 2012, the board reviewed and closed 15 near-death cases, including five that had a previous referral that was investigated by DHS. In 2011, the board reviewed and closed 53 near-death cases, with 16 of those having had a previous referral that was investigated by DHS.
At the Edmond school, Moore talks with the girl for about 20 minutes. They come out of the office, and her ponytail bobs as she heads back to class.
“She told me graphically how mom runs, gets the knife, dad runs behind her, mom turned and tried to cut him with the knife, and he grabbed her and he started choking her until she dropped the knife,” Moore said after the interview. “No kid should be exposed to anything like that.”
From here, Moore will try to work the case preventively, getting the girl's parents into domestic violence services. She might go stay with a relative until her parents are more stable. But if they refuse to work with him, he might have to involve a district attorney.
Before he came to DHS, Moore ran a cleaning business and volunteered in prison ministries. But for a long time, he had felt a calling to help people on a wider scale. And then one night in 2004, his 17-year-old stepson was shot and killed.
Delonte's death, in some ways, compelled Moore to become a DHS worker. He tells new workers, No, this job doesn't pay the best, the hours are long, and it can be emotionally draining.
“But if you have the heart for it, you'll love it,” he said. “If you're just doing it for a job, you're probably not going to stick around very long.”
Chapter 2: The interviews
Latasha Granillo has seen the child welfare cases that society would rather pretend don't exist.
Driving by, a person likely wouldn't notice the house where Granillo worked or suspect that this is the street where some of the worst child abuse and neglect cases in Oklahoma County are investigated.
The street is the undisclosed home to multiple agencies that all focus on child crimes. Granillo regularly is at the CARE Center, a facility where child victims and child perpetrators undergo forensic interviews.
In a forensic interview, a trained expert will ask a child non-leading questions to determine whether any abuse occurred. In the end, it's up to the children to tell whether they were abused.
“The minute it starts becoming too traumatic, they'll end it, regardless,” Granillo said. “There may be something that happened, but this kid just isn't ready to tell us right now.”
For Granillo, the hardest part is when she knows something likely happened to a child, but the child isn't ready to tell anyone. When she's working with a cooperative parent, she can sometimes get the child into counseling, where they might grow more comfortable talking about what happened.
But if the child's parent or guardian won't admit anything happened, Granillo is sometimes left at a place where she can't do much of anything.
“We can try our hardest to try and get on the same level with the parents, which usually I can, but at times, you can't,” she said.
Physical signs of abuse are not visible in about 90 percent of cases, she said. So, in some cases, the forensic interview might provide the only evidence that Granillo could use as evidence in court.
In one of Granillo's cases, part of the evidence was a video of a toddler being raped by a man who had multiple victims, including the toddler's mother. When Granillo went to an apartment complex to remove the child, family members and residents were outside, screaming at her.
“They were calling out, ‘You're the devil. How do you sleep at night? You're evil, evil, evil. How could you do this?' And just really attacking me, DHS, for removing this child, and I just was thinking in the back of my head, ‘Oh my God, you have no idea what this child has been through,'” Granillo said.
Chapter 3: The courthouse
The lobby of the Juvenile Justice Center in Oklahoma City feels almost like it's breathing. After 9 a.m., no door stays closed for long. Parents and children dart in and out of a few courtrooms. A wall of glass serves as a buffer to the noisy lobby, where it's not hard to overhear a custody argument or a prayer.
On a Thursday morning just after 9 a.m., child welfare specialist Grace Stevenson stands in the lobby, attempting to end a fight between two parents before someone leaves in handcuffs. The couple's 4-year-old daughter stands near her frustrated mother. The girl sings a song to herself and occasionally dances, ignoring the adults.
“Everything is a big deal to you,” the father responds after the mother lays into him about a list of mistakes he has made. “Go sit in there and relax,” Stevenson says to the father.
She later advises the mother, “You don't have to like somebody to get along.” Stevenson reminds the mother that her daughter is only 4. She has 14 more years of parenting to do.
Stevenson, 29, learned early on in life about the importance of being a good parent. At 16, she had her first daughter.
It wasn't easy finishing high school as a teen mom. And it certainly wasn't easy being a single mom with two girls while getting her master's degree. But when Stevenson was a teen mom, she remembers a teacher at Putnam City West High School telling her she could be somebody.
“Everybody is shocked that I came so far,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson has a 16-year-old girl on her caseload who lost her mother to domestic violence. The girl has been in and out of DHS custody since she was 8. Stevenson took her to Olive Garden for her 16th birthday.
Stevenson wants to be a positive role model for a girl who doesn't have one. When the girl wanted to stop taking her birth control to have a baby, Stevenson talked her down. And Stevenson is trying to get her to stop cussing people out. There are better ways to communicate.
“One little conversation changes a person's whole perspective,” Stevenson said. “I'm hoping something I do in that little girl's life she will remember. She's very smart.”
This is the type of social work Stevenson and other workers hope to do more of.
In 2012, DHS settled a class-action civil rights lawsuit against its foster care system. The result of the lawsuit was what's known as the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan. As part of the plan, DHS has agreed to hire hundreds more child welfare workers and pay them a higher wage.
Starting in the 2013 state fiscal year, entry-level child welfare specialists earn about $30,380. That's an increase from $28,570, and over the next four years, DHS has said it will continue to increase wages.
To put that in perspective, the average starting police officer salary is $40,000. An entry-level schoolteacher with a bachelor's degree makes about $31,000. Child welfare specialists are required to have a bachelor's degree.
Chapter 4: Foster families
Initially, William Starr wanted to be a basketball coach and history teacher. But after some time serving in the military and working at a police department, Starr found himself applying for a job with DHS.
Starr came to DHS after having a negative experience with the agency as a child. Without going into the details of his case, Starr explained that a miscommunication led to him being removed from his parents' home. The policy that got him removed no longer exists.
After being gone for months, Starr remembers the day he returned to his second grade classroom in Blanchard. Everybody was asking where he had been.
“I was too embarrassed to tell anybody, so I just said I was sick,” he said.
Starr's embarrassment has turned to empathy. Part of his job is to visit foster homes to check on children in custody. During an evening trip to an Oklahoma City neighborhood, he stands in a front yard with a clipboard as five siblings, ranging in age from about 2 to 11, play around him.
He asks the foster parents sitting on the porch questions, but he can't help but play with the children. He picks up a basketball they're tossing around.
“Can I shoot it?” he asks. He shoots the ball into a plastic goal that sits in the middle of the yard. It might not be the coaching job he expected, but he's happy with his outcome.
“The end goal, for me at least, is to know that at the end of the day I'm working to get kids out of the system,” Starr said.
“I would love for us to live in a perfect world where we don't have as many kids in the foster care system as we do.”
Presently, DHS has about 10,000 children in some form of custody. As part of the Pinnacle Plan, the agency plans to recruit about 2,000 foster homes, 500 more than were recruited last year.
The goal is to find those families by this year. The more foster families there are, the fewer children who have to be placed in shelters.
DHS director Ed Lake said the agency's goal is to stop placing children in shelters, unless there's absolutely no other option.
“Think about if you were a 2-year-old,” Lake said. “You're going to this shelter that has 45 other children or 80 other children ... Think how chaotic that must feel for a 2-year-old who's used to a family setting.”
Chapter 5: Reunification, termination and adoption
Like many other case workers, Katie Cooper calls the children on her cases “my kids.”
She and her husband, Luke, both work at DHS. There are times when one of them has to handle an emergency. They've tried to teach their 3-year-old daughter Mackenna what they do when they have to leave suddenly.
“She'll actually asks, ‘Mommy, is Daddy at work? Is Daddy making another kid safe?' ‘Yeah, that's what he's doing' — she gets that,” Katie Cooper said.
Some nights, she works until 9 a.m. Most nights, Cooper just hopes to make it home before her daughter's bedtime.
Cooper's job is to provide services to children who have been placed in DHS custody by a district court judge. She takes children to doctor's appointments, visits them in foster homes and takes them to see their parents.
The goal is for a child to be reunified with his or her parents. That's not always possible, but child welfare specialists are trained to try their hardest to bring the family back together.
Early one Thursday morning, Cooper picks up a 9-month-old girl who's in “trial reunification” with her mother. If the trial period is successful, the girl will go back to live with her mother.
The baby girl has been in custody since she was 2 weeks old. Cooper is the mother's third child welfare worker. This is one of the issues the agency faces with its high turnover rate.
The turnover rate for entry-level child welfare workers is almost 40 percent, but it decreases the longer a person stays with DHS. The most experienced workers have a turnover rate of about 5 percent.
Ideally, Cooper would have had the case from the time the baby girl came into custody. But often, the job doesn't put you in ideal circumstances.
For Cooper, the Pinnacle Plan offers her hope. She wants to be a “real” social worker, not the paper pusher who spends more time filing reports than interacting with families. She wants to feel like the late nights away from her daughter are spent helping her “kids.”
“Even on the days when you're not quite sure the decisions you make are the best for everybody, or if it's that gut-wrenching decision where you're just like ‘Could this be the best decision? Did I do this right?' ... you go home to your own child, and you're like ‘Every kid deserves to have the safety and stability that I hope I'm providing for my child,'” Cooper said.