The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

April 4, 2013

Panel has 37 recommendations on Oklahoma child deaths

By Tim Talley
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — A failure among Oklahoma's judiciary, police and social services agencies to communicate in a timely manner about children in the state's care has had "serious consequences" including injuries and deaths, according to a panel reviewing child abuse and neglect cases from the Department of Human Services' files.

The review committee, which included medical, educational and law enforcement professionals, released a report Thursday after studying the deaths or near deaths of 135 children between January 2010 and mid-2012. Its 16-month investigation included in-depth looks at 36 child deaths due to abuse or neglect and resulted in 37 recommendations for administrators and care-givers.

"We needed to know if there were systemic issues at DHS that contributed to these deaths," said Wes Lane, a former member of the Human Services Commission who outlined the report's contents. "We wanted to bring plain old Oklahoma common sense to the table. And they brought it by the ton."

Among the report's major findings was a frequent failure to communicate between DHS child case workers and officials of various public agencies, including prosecutors, police, educators and medical personnel, as well as members of the public.

"On several occasions," the report states, "case workers would have benefitted from receiving information, histories known by other agencies such as courts, police, school, etc.," the report states.

Occasionally, actions by the state's court system "were in direct conflict" with the recommendations of DHS workers concerning an at-risk child's welfare, the report states. "There were cases where the court did not take the direct recommendations of OKDHS and resulted in child injury or death."

The report also found that child neglect and abuse was frequently found in households where domestic violence, drug abuse and other social problems had been reported.

"Frequently investigations were hampered because the law does not allow OKDHS to require parents to submit to drug testing," the report states. "Sometimes there was a tendency to ignore drug abuse in the home because the 'medications were prescribed.'"

Of the 36 deaths, all but one child were living with families and not in DHS custody. The remaining case involved a child in foster care, the report said.

Among the report's recommendations is that state agencies do a better job communicating with each other to protect at-risk children and for DHS to develop "clear policies" for addressing prescription drug abuse in the households of at-risk children. It also recommends that DHS child workers receive better training.

Former DHS commissioner Karen Waddell said members of the panel also felt that DHS's budget needed to be adjusted to better accomplish its mission.

"I'm sure they need an increase," Waddell said, but she did not suggest a specific amount. Gov. Mary Fallin's executive budget recommends that the agency receive an additional $50 million more that the department's previous funding level.

In its response to the report, DHS said many of the report's recommendations have already been addressed in a series of improvements adopted by the Oklahoma Legislature last year to overhaul the agency and reorganize its child welfare division to make it more accountable.

The improvements were adopted as the state settled a federal class-action lawsuit filed in 2008 by a child advocacy group that alleged children in DHS care suffered physical abuse and neglect. The case led to a 5-year, $153 million plan to improve the agency.