Monday, October 4, 2010

Weekly Opinion/EditorialPROTECT THE KIDS!
by Steve Fair
The problems the Oklahoma Department of Human Services has experienced in child welfare cases have been well publicized. The death of two young Oklahoma girls has some people questioning the judgment of child welfare case workers and judges.
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Kelsey Briggs was just three years old when she was murdered on October 11, 2005. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the abdomen. Her stepfather was arrested on first degree murder. Her mother was later charged with two felonies of Child Abuse and Enabling Child Abuse. In April 2006 Kelsey's body was exhumed for a second autopsy where sexual abuse was documented. The stepfather's charges were amended to add the sexual abuse.
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Aja Johnson was a seven year old Geronimo girl who was kidnapped and murdered by her stepfather, Lester Hobbs, after he had killed her mother in late January of this year. Aja’s badly decomposed body was found along with Hobbs body near Norman in March, nearly two months after she was kidnapped.
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According to Kathie Briggs, Kelsey's grandmother, Yolanda Hunter, a DHS Lincoln County case worker, was one of the primary caseworkers in the Kelsey Smith-Briggs and Aja Johnson child death cases. Hunter retired in July at her own request.
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After Briggs death, the legislature contracted in 2009 with an independent firm Hornby Zeller Associates to ‘audit’ the Oklahoma child welfare system. According to the study, Oklahoma had nearly twice the U.S. average of children in state custody. Thirteen children out of every one thousand in Oklahoma were in DHS custody. The audit criticized Oklahoma DHS for failing to acknowledge they were a part of a larger child welfare system.
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"Too many of DHS’ relationships reveal a lack of respect for those other parties, with foster parents treated as dispensable, judges treated with disrespect by not providing workers with the proper training to appear in court, and parents’ attorneys and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) not getting straight answers,” the audit report states.
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State Representative Ron Peters, (R-Tulsa), Chairman of the State House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services said in 2009, "If we can just get the number of kids coming into the system down to the national average, we’ll have half as many kids coming into the system. That addresses the workload issue. It addresses the stress levels. It addresses a lot of things.”
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Some observations about the Oklahoma child welfare system:
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First, Peters' statement about getting the number of children in state custody to the national average is callous and lacks compassion. Citing statistical goals is appropriate if we are dealing with reducing the number of bureaucrats in state government, but not abused children. Hitting numbers should not be the focus of what the DHS Child Welfare team does. They should be protecting the kids first- and statistics shouldn’t be a factor in the case.
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Second, blaming DHS workers and judges for violent acts against children is misguided and unfair. Case workers and judges are only human and don’t have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight when they make their evaluation/judgment. That doesn’t excuse shoddy, sloppy, inconsistent investigative work by a lazy case worker or poor judgment by a clueless judge, but if they have done all they can to insure the child is not placed in a dangerous environment, then making the case worker or judge the scapegoat is clearly wrong.
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Third, perhaps Oklahoma should think ‘outside the box,’ for the solution. Last week Peters released a study on the privatization of child welfare in Oklahoma. Peters, R-Tulsa, said. “I think that all options must be examined, including privatization. At the end of the day, we have to have a system that serves our children.” Is privatizing the way to go?
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Thirteen states across the U.S. have privatized some of their child welfare services, including Kansas. In a comprehensive evaluation of the privatizing of child welfare, Childrensrights, org says, “Public agencies should not expect to save money through privatization, given the real costs of developing, implementing, and overseeing a privatization initiative and the costs associated with providing a full array of services to children and families under expectations of higher quality.”
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But while Oklahoma may not save money, we could get “better” case work through the private sector. Sounds like something that should be explored
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Last week, Oklahoma Speaker of the House Designate Kris Steele (R-Shawnee) questioned several state child abuse experts on the contact DHS had with Aja Johnson before her death. “The thing that stood out to me is that there is a long track record of DHS involvement in the life of Aja and her family,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “Did the state of Oklahoma do everything possible to try and protect this child? I'm not insinuating that did not occur. I just want to make sure.”
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Steele said he's considering legislation for next session that would require more background checks on family members before children are placed in a home, and more sharing of information between child welfare agencies and law enforcement. Steele is on the right track. In a down budget year, one area not to scrimp on is protecting those who can’t protect themselves.

1 comment:

Denise Brinkmeyer said...
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