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Q & A with gubernatorial candidates Jari Askins and Mary Fallin concerning Oklahoma's troubled child welfare system

Oklahoma has one of the highest child death rates from abuse and neglect in the nation. Gubernatorial candidates Jari Askins and Mary Fallin discuss their plans to improve the system.
BY RANDY ELLIS Published: October 17, 2010

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jari Askins and Republican candidate Mary Fallin say changes are needed in Oklahoma's child welfare system to stem the cycle of abuse and neglect. The candidates discussed their ideas for reforming with The Oklahoman. Questions were provided to their campaigns in advance. Askins responded during a telephone interview, while Fallin responded by e-mail. Responses have been edited for length.

Q: Oklahoma has consistently had one of highest child death rates from abuse and neglect in the nation. What is your plan for improving the situation?

Askins: On almost all things regarding children, the first thing that I want to be able to do is issue an executive order and create a children's cabinet. It won't solve the problem overnight, but I've advocated for four years or more for a children's cabinet and have not been successful at the Legislature. ... A children's cabinet is an opportunity for the state to establish priorities and areas of focus and then make sure that everyone involved in children's programming is focused in the same direction.

Fallin: Child abuse and crime in general are linked to poverty, substance abuse and lack of education. There is no silver bullet that will solve these problems overnight. With that said, getting our economy back on track — my number one priority as governor — will go a long way. Supporting drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation programs and reducing the high school dropout rate will also both play a role.

Q: For the last seven years for which federal data is available, Oklahoma's rate of confirmed abuse or neglect of children in foster care has been among the five worst in the nation. For two of those years, Oklahoma had the worst rate. Do you have a plan to deal with the problem?

Askins: We've had so many children who have been removed from homes that we have seen a need for an increased number of foster families. So the concern would be: Are we appropriately training (new foster parents) or are we so far behind in the number of families that we need that we are coming up and putting children — many of whom come with emotional and physical needs that everyday people may not be aware of — with families that aren't prepared? ... (One,) I think more support (is needed). We know that financially it is very difficult for foster families to afford the care of extra children. Two, we need to look at the training of foster families and certainly, three, how we recruit foster families.

Fallin: The high number of abused and neglected children in foster care is completely unacceptable. As governor, one thing I will ask for is a thorough review of how DHS screens out complaints of child abuse. For too long, we have allowed legitimate reports of abuse and neglect to fall through the cracks, taking children with them. We need to immediately tighten up that process so that each and every legitimate complaint is investigated.

Q: High turnover rate among DHS child welfare workers has been blamed for many of the agency's problems. About 45 percent of caseworkers have less than two years experience. Do you have a plan to fix that?

Askins: I think it's very difficult. I have some child welfare workers in my area — where I come from in Duncan — supervisors that have been there for decades, and they were in their positions when I was a judge. They are very frustrated as they see time spent in training child welfare workers, and because of the high caseloads and low pay, when those workers have a chance to move to a better job, they do so. Sometimes it is for the salary. Sometimes it's because the work is incredibly difficult and it's very emotional. ... Being able to train and, I think, have ... more caseworkers so we can reduce the average caseload is one way that we can begin to build some experience among those workers. It's not easy. It's hard work.

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