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In Oklahoma, Asking a Few Questions Might Have Prevented a Boy’s Tragic Death

abandoned_teddy_bear_roadsideThe pick-up truck that peeled away from a boozy lakeside gathering left behind more than just a cloud of dust. On the ground lay R.P., all of 20 months old, bloodied and unconscious, soon to die of the massive head trauma inflicted when the truck ran him down. And in the air swirled a host of unspoken but obvious questions.

Why would Oklahoma child welfare officials cultivate a climate of chaos by stuffingR.P. and his two young siblings into a foster home that was already overcrowded with eight other children?

Why would they ignore complaints by the biological parents of children in the home who, upon visiting with their kids, saw signs of bruising on one boy and were told another child had been ordered to “clean his own puke”?

And why, nine days before R.P. died, would state officials screen out a referral from a tribal child welfare caseworker who found at the foster home seven children under the age of 10, alone and unsupervised? That caseworker removed the four children who were under tribal jurisdiction. Why wouldn’t the child welfare workers responsible for the other children follow suit? Or at least initiate an investigation?

Had state officials asked and answered these questions in any sort of timely and satisfactory manner, they might have saved R.P.’s life.

Instead, his preventable death serves as yet another example of the deep-seated problems and dysfunction plaguing Oklahoma’s child welfare system, documented with startling details in a recent independent report on the state’s investigations of neglect and abuse in foster care.

The poor decision making by R.P.’s caseworker, the failure to execute an investigation, and the utter lack of thoroughness in evaluating R.P.’s foster home and foster parents are not restricted to this particular case. The system’s ills are endangering far too many children.

The issue of criminal background checks on caregivers stands as one glaring example of Oklahoma’s utter inadequacy when it comes to protecting its foster kids. Of the 125 investigations reviewed by the national child welfare experts who produced this report, less than five percent included a search for a history of crime.

Had Oklahoma required such checks for all foster parents — as national child welfare standards recommend — the state’s welfare officials would have known that R.P.’s foster father had multiple arrests for alcohol abuse. And maybe that discovery would have led to the other questions that should have spared R.P. from tragedy.

The most recent expert report is hardly the first to document the sweeping deficiencies in Oklahoma’s child welfare system, and R.P.’s story is far from the only tragedy to result from the problems it brings to light. And yet the state continues to fiercely defend its practices, refusing to acknowledge its failures while offering data that significantly misleads the public and federal agencies about its performance.

The evidence is overwhelming. The child welfare reforms we are fighting for are long overdue.

And while it’s too late to change the end of R.P.’s story, it’s not too late to give thousands of abused and neglected children in foster care right now a chance for a happier ending.

We’ve done it before — in New Jersey, in Tennessee, in many other states nationwide where we’ve succeeded in spurring dramatic improvements in the way state child welfare systems treat the most vulnerable kids in their care.

And we can do it again — we will do it again — in Oklahoma.