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In Oklahoma: Rules are Broken, Young Lives are Lost

swimming_poolChild welfare systems establish rules to protect the well-being of the kids in their care. Plain and simple. And those rules are as worthless as the paper they’re printed on if child welfare workers aren’t compelled to follow them to the letter.

Oklahoma has created the kind of culture in its child welfare system where rules are ignored, where indifference and laxity prevail — and where children suffer. How else to explain two young kids who drowned under shockingly similar circumstances hardly a year apart, when state officials could have spared them that tragic fate by enforcing one simple rule?

S.W. had just turned two years old when Oklahoma officials removed her from her parents’ world of violence, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. After bouncing through a variety of foster care placements — sometimes with her young siblings, sometimes not — S.W. landed with her brothers and sister at a recently approved foster home.

Ignore, if you can, the fact that S.W. and her siblings never should have been in a home with a documented history of serious child welfare problems. Believe it or not, that’s irrelevant to this particular case.

And what makes it irrelevant is something that may seem at first glance far less threatening — even banal: a swimming pool. Repeatedly, state child welfare workers noted the lack of a security fence around the pool — as required by Oklahoma child welfare policy — at S.W.’s foster home. Official records indicate that state officials documented the issue and spoke to the foster parents about it. The parents signed those documents. And still, despite this clear violation of its own policy, the state began placing children there.

Three months after S.W. moved into this unsafe home, she sank to the bottom of that pool, never to breathe again.

With mistakes so obvious, and fixes so easy to understand and apply, one might think that Oklahoma would try to draw some lesson from this horrible incident, to head off the possibility that this tragedy might repeat itself by reminding all of its child welfare workers that pools require fences — or the foster home can’t take children.

If they did, the message clearly didn’t take root. Fourteen months later, the state placed three-year-old J.T. in a foster home with a fenceless pool. Once again, the state noted the deficiency multiple times. And once again, the state ignored its own rules.

Three weeks after arriving at the home, J.T. drowned.

So many of the horrors we learn of in our child welfare reform campaigns involve malevolence or willful neglect by one of the people in vulnerable children’s lives. But not in these cases, and in a way, it makes the stories of S.W. andJ.T. more difficult to stomach.

S.W. and J.T. would be alive today if Oklahoma’s child welfare officials had followed one simple rule that required no judgment, no real decision-making skills.

The deaths of S.W. and J.T. are just two of at least five preventable tragedies to befall children in Oklahoma state custody over the past few years. All these deaths represent the extreme consequences of dysfunction in its foster care system, detailed in a damning recent report by a team of child welfare experts.

The ills plaguing Oklahoma’s child welfare system — and causing innocent kids irreparable and sometimes deadly harm — can be fixed. The state can train workers to react quickly, to run every background check, to make smart decisions that put the children first. But it seems like Oklahoma will make changes only if it has to.

It does.

At Children’s Rights, we have one rule that conquers all — we must do whatever it takes to ensure kids in foster care are safe and on the fastest path to stable, loving, permanent families.

We follow that rule to the letter.