WHAT'S next for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services? What revelations will come our way in the days or weeks ahead that will leave taxpayers scratching their heads, or frustrated, or downright angry, as has happened so often of late? It doesn't seem to be a question of if, but when.
Beleaguered as a result of its handling of child welfare cases that ended in the worst way possible — with children dying — and testimony that showed some oversight board members to be less than engaged, DHS is now parrying The Oklahoman's discovery that agency officials last year underreported the number of children abused and neglected while in state custody in 2009.
A news release issued in December 2010 said 99.8 percent of children in out-of-home care the previous year “did not experience maltreatment while in care,” making Oklahoma one of 24 states that met a national benchmark of at least 99.68 percent. But Oklahoma's figure was false. Instead, our state ranked among the worst states in the country during 2009.
DHS officials say the discrepancy resulted from the agency failing to report to the federal government some cases of abuse and neglect in foster homes that took considerable time to review. Deborah Smith, head of children and family services for DHS, blamed a computer search error for the mistake. “I can tell you the people who discovered the data were just very disappointed that ... we had reported data that was inaccurate,” Smith told our reporters. “Very embarrassed. It really bothered them.”
Yet after discovering the mistake, DHS apparently never felt it necessary to clearly set the record straight with the public or with the agency's oversight commission.
DHS also chose not to inform the federal government that 154 children had been abused or neglected in state shelters and group homes during 2009. The government says those figures should be included in states' reports. DHS contends it doesn't have to include them; indeed Oklahoma is one of 14 states that exclude them.
DHS officials also say the different standards states use to compile their abuse and neglect statistics make state-to-state comparisons unreliable. Perhaps, but the agency was happy to issue the December news release touting what it saw as a high national standing based on statistics.
This episode is a sad commentary on an agency whose importance can't be overstated, but whose job performance apparently can.