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New Data, Same Tragic Story: Oklahoma’s Deep Dysfunction Threatens its Vulnerable Children

compfight_4410672386_sad_girl_pose_psMore than three years ago, Children’s Rights launched its campaign to make foster care safer for the 8,000 abused and neglected children who depend on Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services (DHS) for both protection and a smooth path to a permanent family — preferably their own.

The state’s administration and child welfare officials have fought us every step of the way. Our chance to stand up for these kids has been pushed back until early next year, when these issues will play out in court, but we will be more than ready to win for these children their unalienable rights.

In preparation, Children’s Rights has investigated DHS’s performance on nearly every critical measure. The numbers tell a story we have heard over and over again and they do not lie — the system is rife with dysfunction.

The issue of abuse and neglect suffered by kids while in DHS custody lies at the core of our efforts. After a thorough analysis of data from the past few years — both the state’s “official” figures as well as the information it doesn’t report to the federal government — it is clear that Oklahoma’s abuse in care rate is four to five times the national standard.

When Children’s Rights discovered that Oklahoma does not report instances of abuse that occur in institutions and group facilities, we voiced serious concerns that child welfare officials weren’t presenting an accurate picture of their system. Sheree Powell, a spokesperson for DHS, suggested otherwise in telling The Oklahoman that “abuse/neglect in these [institutional] settings would not have a significant effect on our statewide safety rating percentage.”

She was wrong. Terribly wrong.

In fact, when abuse in institutions and group facilities is taken into account, Oklahoma’s rate of child abuse and neglect for children in DHS custody approximately doubles.

Only two possibilities can explain state officials’ erroneous position: Either they didn’t know the truth or they misled the public in order to hide it. Both are unacceptable.

There’s enough lack of accountability at the highest levels of the agency to suggest that they didn’t know. In June,DHS Director Howard Hendrick admitted under oath that he wasn’t aware that the agency he runs doesn’t include abuse and neglect in group facilities in the data it provides to the federal government, even though it should. He did, however, order an “administrative review” of cases that overturned at least 61 substantiated cases of abuse, lowering the state’s abuse-in-care rates.

In fact, Children’s Rights’ review of DHS and its organizational structure revealed questionable practices and an alarming absence of awareness and ownership at the highest levels of oversight. The sole oversight of the agency is in the hands of the nine-person Oklahoma Commission for Human Services, whose members serve for nine years and can’t be fired unless they are indicted. In theory, the Commissioners supervise the DHS director, but they haven’t given Hendrick a performance review since 2008.

The Commission has little to review Hendrick on. They only see reports and data that Hendrick selects for them, and a review of the minutes from their short, once-monthly meetings indicates that they haven’t seen critical measures such as abuse-in-care rates, average worker caseloads, average length of stay in custody, or other important statistics about how kids and families are fairing. Nor were they aware that the DHS administration has chosen to ignore a state law requiring the agency to seek accreditation by a national standard-setting organization. And until recently, the Commission didn’t even know that Oklahoma was one of only seven states that failed all six federal child welfare standards plus all seven safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes.

The mismanagement at the top clearly has flowed down to the frontlines, as the following statistics reflect:

. They all point to the same reality:

Oklahoma is an incredibly dangerous place to be in foster care.

It’s time for Oklahoma and DHS to stop wasting money and valuable time fighting legal battles and to recognize the harm that children are enduring. Not so long ago, New Jersey and Tennessee decided to embrace the reform spurred by Children’s Rights, and their systems have since improved dramatically.

This campaign shouldn’t be about winning and losing. Too many innocent children have already come out on the losing end.

Advocacy Group Slams Oklahoma’s DHS For Abuse Rate (News on 6, August 12, 2011)