ENID, Okla. — Rain or shine, 248 children will be outside on the Garfield County Court House Lawn for the month of April — wooden children, that is.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and this display of wooden children — each representing one substantiated case of child abuse in the county — is one way the Garfield County Child Advocacy Council is bringing awareness to the issue.
At the wooden children’s presentation Thursday evening, Enid Mayor George Pankonin proclaimed April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, recognizing the important of families and communities working together to strengthen families to prevent child abuse and neglect.
“People see these kids, these faces — they’re out here in the weather all month, and know that there are children that are really out in the storm in their own lives,” said Dustin Albright, executive director of GCCAC. “They’re out there in the cold and the rain ... and it paints a grim picture of reality.”
Services offered and assessment of child abuse
GCCAC’s mission is stop child abuse, neglect and exploitation by advocating for children through prevention, education and intervention.
At its “yellow house,” 1006 E. Broadway, GCCAC conducts forensic interviews, provides pediatric sexual abuse examinations to children on site and has a multi-disciplinary child abuse response team (MCART), made up of law enforcement, child protective service workers and supervisors, prosecutors, and health and mental health providers.
At GCCAC’s other “white house,” 1012 E. Broadway, families in the process of reunification can meet and interact while case workers from the Department of Human Services observe and evaluate any progress.
Amber French, a supervisor at Garfield County DHS, said the department intervenes when necessary. These interventions can range from DHS supervision in the home, to family-centered cases without a court, to removing the child from the home.
After a family assessment, DHS plans can include counseling, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence counseling and more, French said.
“It’s assessing where we need to focus and what do we do to protect and keep the family safe,” she said.
DHS has a centralized call hotline in Oklahoma City, where workers review the case and decide on assignment if it’s immediate or can wait, or there’s no issue at all, French said.
Law enforcement sometimes gets called out to cases, and French said if the Enid Police Department or other investigating agency has any concerns for children involved, DHS will be called out, as well.
Officers trained in police academies and field training how to respond to calls involving children will typically make a referral to DHS if they suspect a juvenile has been mistreated, EPD Lt. Bryan Hart said.
“DHS may screen it out, they may not, but that’s up to DHS, but we want to make sure that they have the right information so we don’t miss providing information to DHS that DHS is going to want to go out on,” Hart said. “We kind of go overboard so that we don’t miss something.”
EPD gets reports of child physical abuse, child sexual abuse and child neglect. The department has two full-time juvenile investigators and a sergeant that oversees the juvenile investigations, who Hart said “stay busy.”
Two child abuse-neglect cases and five child abuse-maltreatment cases have been reported in 2021 so far, EPD spokesperson Cass Rains said.
In 2020, there were 15 child abuse-neglect cases and 53 child abuse-maltreatment cases, and 2019 saw 13 child abuse-neglect cases, 23 child abuse-maltreatment cases and one child abuse-abandonment case.
These figures don’t include instances of sexual abuse to children, Rains said.
A ‘horrible formula’
The number of wooden children is low compared with previous years — 2019 had 373 wooden children, and 2018 saw 332.
Albright said the possibility of underreporting may be due to the COVID-19 pandemic since children weren’t seen as often by observant teachers, counselors and friends.
Albright said the combination of children being home after the shutdown orders and people losing their jobs during the pandemic created a “horrible formula” for potential stress in home, thus a possibility for abuse to occur.
“Just because the numbers went down, doesn’t mean that we didn’t have child abuse in Enid,” he said. “We’ve always had about an average of the same numbers that I have seen in the past few years, going back over the averages — it just doesn’t go down like that.”
French said a lot of referrals to DHS came from schools, so safety concerns for children rose when schools shut their doors and transitioned to distance learning.
“We wondered if that was impacted because kids were not in schools. That’s where they would talk to their teachers about things or their counselors, or they would have bruises — there would be something noticeable,” she said. “When they were at home, it was a little concerning that we were probably missing some children that really needed our intervention.”
The wooden children numbers are only court-removal cases and doesn’t include the other two types of cases DHS works, French said.
COVID-19 also affected trials through delays. The pandemic pushed pack termination trials, which is where DHS is trying to move forward to get a child adopted or a permanent home, although it’s improving now, French said.
Raising children is stressful already, said Sherry Fair, executive director of Parent Promise, the Oklahoma Chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America in Oklahoma City.
If parents or guardians don’t have support or financial means to raise a family, it can add on to the stress and lead to neglect and abuse, Fair said. Other stressors include living in high-crime neighborhoods, substance abuse problems and the absence of a parent from death, divorce or incarceration.
Giving children safety and health
“No matter who you are, everybody is subject to Title 10,” Hart said, referring to a section of state statute requiring anyone with reasonable suspicion of child abuse to report it to DHS. “(Title 10) also goes into specifics — teachers, medical professionals. It outlines specific mandatory reporters, but, again, the first thing that Title 10 says is that every person that has a suspicion has to report it.”
According to Section B of OS 10A-1-2-101, “Every person having reason to believe that a child under the age of eighteen (18) years is a victim of abuse or neglect shall report the matter immediately to the Department of Human Services.”
In short: “If you see something concerning, report it,” Hart said. “If it’s nothing, then great.”
To report possible child abuse or neglect, the 24-hour statewide DHS abuse and neglect hotline for child abuse reporting is 1-(800) 522-3511. The number for Northwestern Oklahoma is 1-(800) 522-1064.
Albright said one of the best ways the community can help is to apply and volunteer to become a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA — a trained, court-appointed citizen volunteer who will provide an independent viewpoint and set of recommendations to the court concerning the best interests of the child.
A child first coming into care gets a caseworker right away, but a CASA doesn’t come in until further down the legal road.
Anyone 21 and older can become a CASA and will go through 30 hours of training. After becoming a CASA, Albright said there’s only about six to eight hours of work a week and one visit with the child.
“That concept does not mean fostering or having the child at your home, and it does not mean a great deal of work a month,” Albright said.
CASAs serve one child at a time.
In her almost two decades as a CASA, Enid resident Janna Jackson has had 11 cases and visits the children at least twice a month.
Jackson joined the volunteer program when she said she was looking for a new challenge while working for the Community Development Support Association around 19 years ago.
A mother of four and current executive director for the Enid Public Schools Foundation, she said she’s always had a “heart for kids.”
“The CASA program gives you a little glimpse into the legal side of it, which was also intriguing to me, and I just had my daughter a couple years before that,” Jackson said. “I’ve been going strong ever since.”
The initial phase after being assigned to a case involves a lot of investigating — reading through and studying the court documents in the child’s case — which Jackon said goes by quickly.
When a CASA meets their child, Jackson said a big part of it is listening to the child and observing them, eventually becoming a consistent figure in a child’s life and the voice of the child in court, she said.
“You try to just get the full picture of what’s going on with the child at that time,” Jackson said. “That way, you know what can help that situation, what can bring this to a resolution, because the end goal is always that the child is in a safe, loving, permanent home. You have to have that as your end game.”
French, with county DHS, said another way to help children be safe is becoming a foster or adoptive parent, which she said the community always needs.
“When there’s not enough foster homes in the child’s own community, a lot of times, they have to leave the community, which means they leave their schools, their friends — maybe they were already in services with counseling and they have that connection,” French said. “They’re sent three hours away from their family, which impacts how much they see the parent, what connection we keep with them and their support.”
The process to become a foster parent includes background checks, reference checks, home assessments, medical examination reports, fingerprinting and more.
According to Oklahoma Fosters, 468 children were waiting on “forever families,” 7,614 children were in DHS custody and 898 foster families were needed in 2020.
Fair said National Child Abuse Prevention Month and organizations like GCCAC, DHS and Parent Promise are important because children “need to grow up healthy,” and it’s everybody’s responsibility all year long to look out for children and make sure they are being raised in a healthy environment.
“We need healthy, resilient children,” Fair said, “because not only are they our future, but children just deserve to have happy childhoods.”