Foster Care in Oklahoma: A System of Apathy

When foster youth in Oklahoma suffer abuse in state custody, the chances are appallingly high that an investigation will be ineffective and inconsequential.

cryingboyokWhen a 10-year-old boy said he was sexually assaulted by his 13-year-old roommate in their room at an Oklahoma short-term residential treatment center, the staff didn’t rally to protect him or call the police. No, they had him write out a statement and then convinced him to say it wasn’t true.

Two days went by before the police were finally called in. The boy repeated his original, detailed description of the alleged assault — but the police held back from proceeding because the facility said it was conducting its own investigation.

And what exactly happened in this investigation?

Staff from the Office of Client Advocacy (OCA), the division within Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services (DHS) charged with investigating maltreatment in group homes and institutions, didn’t bother speaking with the doctor who examined the boy.

They neglected to call the boy’s therapist.

And they failed to interview his caseworker, who apparently drove the boy to the hospital after the incident.

How does a culture of ambivalence and disregard like this take root? One clue comes from the head of OCA, Mark Jones, who said in a deposition about his agency’s investigations: “We don’t know who the caseworker is. And, frankly, we don’t care.”

These are just a few of the horrifying details that come out of a damning new report (PDF) about Oklahoma’s feeble efforts to investigate the abuse of children in state custody. The state child welfare system fails these children on a number of levels: a lack of timeliness and thoroughness of its investigations, extremely poor decision making, and an inability to protect children while allegations of abuse and neglect are being investigated.

The study, conducted by a national child welfare expert with more than 40 years of experience in the field, found thatDHS failed to adequately protect at least 21 percent of potential child victims while investigating claims of abuse and neglect in foster homes, and failed to safeguard more than 40 percent of children in congregate care.

Additionally, the review found that DHS screens out a significant number of abuse allegations when, in fact, there is ample evidence to merit a review.

The author’s conclusion: “Foster care in Oklahoma is a dangerous place to be.”

The litany of investigative dysfunction revealed in the report’s pages is staggering. And it’s not limited to settings like group homes, residential treatment centers, and shelters. Child Protective Services (CPS), a separate division withinDHS, investigates abuse allegations in residential foster care homes, and it is failing in equal measure:

  • One quarter of CPS investigations studied included gaps of 30 days or more. Often, an investigation was initiated, but then lagged as CPS did nothing for an extended period of time.
  • Staff failed to observe — or to ask medical professionals to observe — relevant body parts for one out of every four children who were the subjects of allegations that required such action.
  • In almost half of the CPS investigations studied, staff “ignored or discounted credible evidence of abuse and/or neglect,” potentially leaving vulnerable children in terrible danger.

Additionally, Oklahoma’s bifurcated system of addressing alleged abuses gives the state an underhanded advantage when it talks about its record of protecting foster care kids: The state doesn’t report to the federal government any alleged abuse in group homes and institutions investigated by OCA.

And Oklahoma officials use that incomplete, and therefore false, record in their entrenched resistance to the class action Children’s Rights has brought to seek the comprehensive reform of the Oklahoma child welfare system on behalf of the thousands of abused and neglected children statewide who depend on it for protection and care.

Sadly, what you’ve read here is just the beginning. In the coming days, we’ll document in further detail the failings of Oklahoma’s foster care system, and how those failings can lead to tragic results.

It is clear by now that reforming Oklahoma’s dangerous foster care system will take substantial time and effort.

But these overwhelming ills simply must be fixed. And we will not rest until we’re confident that every boy and girl in Oklahoma foster care is safe and well cared for — as all children should be.

Learn More:

  • Read about our efforts to reform Oklahoma child welfare.
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