A new report from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services examined 135 child deaths and near deaths in the state between 2010 and 2012.
The Special Review Committee studying child abuse and neglect deaths of Oklahoma children released its report on Thursday.
Of those deaths the report shows 55 died of natural causes such as SIDS, cancer or other medical reasons, including some from medical complications resulting from drug exposure during pregnancy; 37 children who came into care as a result of Child Abuse or Neglect by a biological parent or other adult in the home, and later died as a result of the abuse/neglect; 19 children who died as a result of an accident, such as fire, car accident; 7 children as a result of abuse or neglect in a resource home and 11 children the cause was not able to be determined.
The 38-page report contains 50 findings and 37 recommendations, which took 16 months to develop. Recommendations made include spending more time investigating prior abuse when looking into a child abuse claim, giving caseworkers the ability to order an obtain drug tests, and lessening the caseloads from DHS caseworkers.
“While our task was to review the work of DHS in the role of child abuse and neglect deaths, our Committee soon discovered that while DHS had some responsibility, the conditions leading to the children’s deaths were the results of multiple omissions and commissions by any number of many groups, agencies, individuals, conditions, and factors,” said Wes Lane, chair of the 21-member, blue ribbon committee.
The committee spent more than a year conducting a broad review of 135 child deaths which occurred between 2010 and 2012. The committee then conducted an in-depth review of 36 of those cases where the child died from either abuse or neglect and the family had some level of child welfare involvement in the 12 months preceding their deaths. Only one of the child death cases reviewed was of a child actually in state custody at the time.
“We observed instances where other agencies were involved in the complexities of cases, times when the public did not report abuse, and other situations where law enforcement or the judicial system, or others in the community bore some of the responsibility for a child’s death,” Lane said.
Lane described the report as balanced, noting the findings are sorted among system issues, domestic violence, drug abuse, household conditions, OKDHS administrative, policy, and performance issues, and systemic issues outside of OKDHS.
"Make no mistake about it,” Lane said, “we found clear areas where DHS must improve and make changes to its policies and procedures – and we note that many changes are already underway with the Pinnacle Plan. But what we ultimately have had to sadly recognize is that there are no sure methods to predict murder or to examine the circumstances in a child's family and be able to definitively predict what negative consequences will occur to those children."
The committee’s report also noted that in addition to improving the child protection system, Oklahoma must find a way to address unstable family and home environments which contribute to occurrences of abuse and neglect.
OKDHS has issued its response to the committee's report which outlines internal changes already made which address many of the committee's recommendations, and how it will address further changes during implementation of the Pinnacle Plan, the five-year improvement plan for the state's foster care system.
Lane encouraged the governor, legislature, agencies working with children, law enforcement, schools, and the public, to read the committee’s report in its entirety.
“The work of this Committee will be in vain if our state does not act on these findings and recommendations,” Lane said. “The citizens serving on this committee brought a lot of good old Oklahoma common sense to the table. They were deeply concerned that what we have with child abuse is far beyond just a DHS problem. It’s an ‘all of our’ problem. We need to pay attention to what they had to say.”
The full report is available online here: Oklahoma Special Review Committee report
and the OKDHS response to Special Review Committee Report.