TULSA, OK — “If you don’t beat them down, they will run all over you.”
So says a foster parent quoted in two new reports by independent child welfare experts linking failures throughout the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) with the often horrific abuse and neglect endured by children in state custody, filed today with the federal court presiding over a lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights and three Oklahoma law firms to reform the state child welfare system.
One report (PDF), by an independent child welfare consultant and social work professor, reviews the cases of five children named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, evaluating DHS’s casework — and reaching damning conclusions.
“When attempting to describe the children’s harm and suffering, the words that come to mind are incomprehensible, unimaginable, outrageous, and immoral,” the author writes. “These five young children’s tragic and painful stories, told in the pages of their DHS case files about their stays in DHS custody, need not have been written. These tragic stories were wholly preventable.”
The other (PDF), by a social work expert with more than 35 years of experience in public child protective services, evaluates DHS’s efforts to protect nine children in Oklahoma foster care — and concludes that the risk of harm to every child in DHS custody is extremely high.
“Children in OKDHS’s care are more likely to be abused and neglected than are children in the care of almost any other state,” the author writes. “It is probable that all children who are placed in the custody of the agency are in danger of being placed with abusive, neglectful, and dangerous caregivers who OKDHS has failed to identify because of its deficient response to child abuse and neglect referrals.”
The reports were filed in support of a motion seeking state documents that will prove how widespread these problems are, which the state has refused to produce. Attorneys for the abused and neglected children named in the reform lawsuit, who are fighting an appeal by DHS that seeks to overturn a federal judge’s decision to allow the suit to proceed as a class action on behalf of all 10,000-plus children in DHS’s custody, say the reports reinforce the children’s claims.
“We now have expert documentation from two very experienced child welfare specialists confirming that the state of Oklahoma is, quite simply, failing to keep its most vulnerable children safe,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Far from being unique to the children named in this lawsuit to reform the state child welfare system, DHS’s pathetically deficient practices ensure that every abused or neglected child who comes into its custody faces an inordinately high risk of suffering further maltreatment on its watch.”
Taken together, the two reports paint a picture of a child welfare system in dire disarray, shuffling children around endlessly between overcrowded, understaffed, and highly dangerous facilities and group homes and one unstable — and often abusive — foster home after another.
- RJ, now 13, has spent a total of more than six years in DHS foster care, going through 10 different placements and spending a total of 126 days in shelters — including one packed with so many children that it was once measured at nearly twice the legal capacity. DHS once received a referral alleging that RJ and three other foster children were beaten with a switch by their foster parents, and all four children confirmed that the foster parents regularly hit them with a switch from a tree. Three had marks from the beatings, and when a DHS worker visited the home, the foster mother acknowledged hitting the kids, saying, “If you don’t beat them down, they will run all over you.” DHS found the referral unconfirmed.
- AP was taken into DHS custody when she was two years old. Over a little more than 18 months in state foster care, DHS has subjected AP to seven different placements in two different counties. Inadequate supervision by her caregivers in two of those placements exposed AP to daily sexual abuse; when she suffered a suspicious fracture during a trial reunification with her father, DHS conducted a shoddy “investigation” in which they failed to interview AP, her sister, or any of the workers assigned to the family. During a gap of two months during the same investigation, DHS left the girls unprotected with caregivers who may have seriously abused one of them. Despite a “somewhat implausible” explanation of AP’s injury, DHS found the referral unconfirmed.
- JA entered DHS custody when he was four years old and went through ten different foster placements in less than ten months — a placement change on average every 53 days — including five different emergency or shelter placements in five counties amounting to more than one-third of his time in foster care. Even as JA began to show signs of significant emotional and behavioral deterioration, DHS workers failed to give him adequate attention. When, at the age of five, JA threatened to run away from his shelter placement and repeatedly made threats to harm himself by jumping out of a van or window “to go to heaven,” his caseworker not only did not increase the frequency of face-to-face visits to monitor his safety, but also failed to even consider a psychological evaluation of the boy.
According to the author of the review of the cases of the children named in the lawsuit, “there are striking similarities in the children’s case records and experiences in DHS custody that appear to indicate systemic deficiencies and persistent preventable failures.”
The author of the report on DHS’s efforts to assure the safety of nine children in its care is even more succinct: “It is likely that all children who are placed in the custody of the agency and who are subjects of child maltreatment allegations are at risk of physical and emotional harm.”
Children’s Rights joined four Oklahoma law firms and the international firm Kaye Scholer in filing a lawsuit in federal court in February 2008 seeking widespread reforms throughout the Oklahoma child welfare system on behalf of more than 10,000 abused and neglected children statewide who depend on the system for protection and care. The federal judge presiding over the case denied a motion by DHS to dismiss the case in January 2009, and, in May 2009, ruled that the case could proceed as a class action on behalf of all children in DHS custody. DHS subsequently appealed that decision, and oral argument will be heard by a federal appeals court in Denver on Thursday, November 19.
The full text of today’s reports and more information about Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform Oklahoma child welfare can be found at www.childrensrights.org/oklahoma.
Report: Treatment of Oklahoma foster kids ‘immoral’ (AP/Tulsa World, November 11, 2009)
Child welfare experts say children in DHS custody at risk (KJRH-TV Tulsa, November 11, 2009)
New Reports Criticize OK DHS (KOKH Fox 23 Oklahoma City, November 11, 2009)
Lawsuit Claims DHS Negligent When Investigating Abuse (KOTV News on 6 Tulsa, November 11, 2009)