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Report says DHS has fallen short in efforts to protect children

Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

Oklahoma children in DHS care continue to be abused and neglected at an "alarmingly high rate," even though the state is six years into an agreement to enact reforms to settle a class-action lawsuit, say three out-of-state experts paid to oversee reform efforts.

"The department's inadequate efforts, contributing to the high incidence of child maltreatment, raise serious concerns for child safety," the experts said in a new 166-page report, which noted the high abuse rates continue in "both foster homes and institutional settings."

DHS Director Ed Lake took strong exception to the report, openly questioning whether the out-of-state monitors have been as personally engaged as they should have been in overseeing state reform efforts.

“We are strongly objecting to a dismaying number of aspects of this report,” Lake said. “We believe this report contains a number of misleading comments, isolated facts stated without important context, hindsight bias, and inconsistencies with prior reports, all seemingly intended to portray the agency's actions or alleged inaction in as unfavorable a light as possible. Even more troubling and of greater importance is the omission of significant, intensive good faith efforts the Department has made and continues to make in all areas.”

Twice a year the out-of-state experts issue reports on the Department of Human Services' progress in working toward goals agreed to as part of a 2012 settlement of a Tulsa federal class-action lawsuit over the abuse of children in state care.

This was the tenth report and it was among the most critical reports ever, finding that the state agency has failed to make good faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress in nine of 31 performance categories during the most recent reporting period.

The report noted that while the agency has made efforts to recruit more foster homes and therapeutic foster homes, the net number of such home actually has been decreasing.

The net number of available foster homes in the state has dropped by 271 over the last three reporting periods and the net number of therapeutic foster homes has decreased continually over the past five reporting periods, including a loss of 55 therapeutic foster homes in the most recent reporting period.

DHS also has failed to make good faith effort to achieve substantial progress in reducing the number of nights that children older than six have to spend in institutional shelters, the report said.

"It is unacceptable that foster children in Oklahoma are still not safe while in state care," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood and co-lead counsel in the lawsuit against the state.

Interrelated problems?

Lowry said she believes the maltreatment of children in state care, the shortage of therapeutic and traditional foster homes and the high number of older children in DHS shelters are interrelated problems.

"All of those are connected with the fact the state does not have facilities or homes that can take care of these children with somewhat greater needs," she said. "They have not developed a system."

Lowry said the out-of-state monitors have been pushing DHS to resolve that problem for several years "and they just haven't done it."

"I think something really has to change," she said adding that she believes it may take increased federal court involvement to get the state to make necessary improvements.

DHS officials dispute that there has been a lack of effort on their part.

DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said the agency has been working to develop the Laura Dester Shelter in Tulsa into a facility that can be used to handle children with heightened needs.

The state also has been working with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Office of Juvenile Affairs to address the problem, but availability of residential psychiatric services for children has been an issue in Oklahoma, she said. Powell described it as a "recent problem," rather than one that has been going on for years.

Abuse rates disputed

One bone of contention between DHS administrators and the out-of-state monitors is the abuse rates cited in the report. The report stated that 184 children out of 15,113 in DHS care were abused or neglected from Oct. 1, 2016 through Sept. 30, 3017, representing a maltreatment rate of 1.22 percent. That fell well short of the goal of limiting the abuse rate to 0.32 percent and meant that 136 children were not kept safe from abuse or neglect who would have been if the goal had been met, the report said.

DHS officials contend the reason that Oklahoma ranks so poorly in that statistic is that Oklahoma includes "threat of harm" in its abuse and neglect statistics, while "most states do not." Agency officials said they took a detailed look at 123 abuse and neglect substantiations that DHS reported from Oct. 17 through March 18 and found that 67 of the substantiations were for threat of harm where actual harm had not yet occurred.

The critical report says DHS gathers information that is often able to predict where abuse is likely to occur, but says all too often the agency fails to follow through by taking action to prevent abuse.

"Warning signs of child abuse and neglect, or risks of the same, are often reported and visible to the agency well before DHS confirms a child is a victim of maltreatment," the report said. "In too many instances, the agency's efforts did not include prompt, appropriate action when these signs were first identified and documented by DHS."

Disturbing examples

The report cited several disturbing examples of children being sexually or physically abused in homes long after earlier abuse had been reported.

In one case, DHS allowed a child and her sister to remain in a foster home after the child reported sexual abuse by her foster father to a counselor. DHS decided the children were "safe" because a safety plan had been established that said the foster father would "not be left alone with either of the children," the report said. The safety plan was to be enforced by the foster mother and her adult daughter, but the report said there was evidence the family members failed to carry out their responsibility.

"Until this home's closure in October 2017, DHS placed a total of ten additional children in this home, despite the department's determination that foster children were unsafe in the care of the foster father in the home," the report said.

In another case, the report said DHS confirmed a foster father's sexual abuse of two siblings who were placed in a home nearly two years after two prior allegations of sexual abuse were made against the foster father. "Three separate foster children disclosed fondling and grooming type behaviors," during the course of the earlier investigation, the report said.

"The department continued to place children in the home for two more years while having this information available for review," the report said.

DHS officials criticized the out-of-state monitors for citing specific cases in the report, contending that was "inappropriate, particularly when they fail to provide the full context and circumstances of the event."

They also questioned whether the monitors were using "hindsight bias" in reaching their conclusions."

"Unfortunately, there may very well be instances in which a warning sign is missed," the agency said in a page-by-page response to the report. "It is a delicate balance with profoundly serious consequences when it comes to considering whether the impact of providing a child with placement stability is outweighed by the prospective determination maltreatment in care may or may not occur."

DHS officials said they would strongly dispute any claim that the state has not made good faith efforts to improve the state's child welfare system as required by the settlement agreement.

Child welfare progress

The state has earmarked more than $119.4 million for child welfare improvements over the past six fiscal years and DHS has internally redirected more than $170.3 million for that purpose, agency officials said.

Other progress they cited over the last six years includes:

• The addition of more than 840 new case workers and supervisors to the child welfare workforce and child welfare workers being paid 33 percent more due to funding for raises.

• Lower caseloads and less turnover of front-line workers.

• The adoption of more than 11,500 children from the foster care system and the reuniting of more than 15,000 with their families.

• The recruitment and approval of more than 4,200 new foster families by DHS and its contract partners. DHS officials said that was the highest increase in the number of foster homes of any state in the nation.

• A 63 percent reduction in the use of emergency children's shelters, and the elimination of the use of shelters for babies up to one year old.

• The closure of both state-run children's shelters.

• Increased use of home-based services, which has helped the state reduce the overall number of children in state custody from 11,298 in October 2014 to 8,294 children now.

• Increased public-private partnerships that have enabled the agency to fund services the agency could not offer on its own.

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›