Audit Reflects Tragedy of Child Welfare System


By TIM TALLEY Associated Press
Published: 3/1/2009  12:32 PM
Last Modified: 3/1/2009  12:32 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY — A critical performance audit of the Department of Human Services says the state takes too many children from their homes, keeps them too long and rotates them among foster homes too frequently to adequately meet their needs and prepare them for adulthood.But Buddy Faye doesn’t need to read the 170-page report to understand the depth of the childhood tragedies created by Oklahoma’s child welfare system. She’s seen plenty of tragedies with her own eyes. “This is not a new problem,” said Faye, a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children in Oklahoma City since 1995 who has also served on post-adjudication review boards.

“This has been going on ever since I got involved in the system,” Faye said. “It’s not like they haven’t known about this situation. They study it to death, but there’s never any meaningful change.”

But that’s exactly what state lawmakers are promising with legislation that would implement some of the 25 recommendations in the DHS audit to fix problems in the child welfare system that prevents it from improving the lives of thousands of Oklahoma children who are in DHS custody every year.

Lawmakers say the recommendations would resolve most of the allegations leveled against DHS by a federal court lawsuit filed last year on behalf of nine foster children that accuses the state of victimizing its foster children and inadequately monitoring their safety.

“Our system is broken,” said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, a frequent critic of DHS who has called for the agency

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to be broken up into three separate parts to better focus its resources on children and families.”The Department of Human Services is a mess. It’s terrible for kids,” Morrissette said. “We still have children dying. We still have children being moved around. The more we ignore the reality of this, our children are going to pay.”

Morrissette opposed the $400,000 DHS audit when it was first proposed by House Republican leaders. But he praised the reports findings and urged implementation of its recommendations.

Morrissette also called for the resignation of DHS Director Howard Hendrick, a former state senator who has received support from legislative leaders since the audit’s release.

“The present status quo is not sufficient,” Morrissette said. “Let’s rebuild this thing with a new team in place.”

A spokesman for DHS, George Johnson, declined to comment directly about Morrissette’s demand.

“We’ll be back at work Monday morning and working as hard as we can to do the people’s business,” Johnson said.

Among other things, the independent audit found that the rate of out-of-home maltreatment of children in DHS care is more than three times the national average. Over two and one-half years, about 1.2 percent of children in DHS care were being abused or neglected compared to a national standard of 0.32 percent.

“There’s all kinds of abuse,” said Faye, who said problems with the state’s child welfare system are well documented in the cases of 11 children she has worked with since they were removed from two different abusive homes.

Nine of the children have left the system after turning 18, but only one graduated from high school and none have job skills, she said. Some have been incarcerated several times and are homeless.

“Out of the 11, I have one who I hope will become a productive citizen. And she’s really struggling,” Faye said.

One girl taken into DHS custody at the age of 3 was placed in 42 different locations before aging out of the system including psychiatric placements although she had no diagnosed mental illness, just defiant behavior, Faye said.

“She was angry. She was very frustrated,” Faye said. “They were moved frequently. They didn’t maintain any placements very long. They didn’t get their educational needs met. They certainly didn’t get any independent living training.

“That’s the kind of thing that is not uncommon.”

Nationally, 70 percent of people who age out of a child welfare system do not have a high school or general equivalency diploma, she said.

The DHS audit found that the state takes children from allegedly abusive homes almost twice as much as the national average and takes too long to have them reunified.

Laurie McClanahan of Edmond experienced firsthand those problems. Her two children, now 6 and 4, were taken from her for more than three years after she said she was accused of abusing her newborn son, who had a diagnosed bowel ailment that required two surgeries.

She said DHS officials suspected her of Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a form a child abuse that involves the exaggeration of illnesses or symptoms by a primary caretaker. The diagnosis was rejected when a judge ordered her children returned to her in February.

“For three and one-half years I didn’t even have a visit,” said McClanahan, a disabled veteran. She said one son “was bounced around from foster home to foster home to foster home.

“I think I was treated horribly,” she said. “They didn’t look at the facts. They were extremely judgmental.

“I made a lot of people angry. But I’m sorry — no one is going to mess with my children.”

The DHS spokesman, Johnson, said state law prohibits the department from openly discussing child welfare matters.

The audit found that DHS does not have the full scope of legal authority granted to protective agencies in other states and some of the basic resources it needs to perform its duties.

Also, the agency attempts to control the course of events so tightly that it presents an overbearing and even disrespectful face to its own workers and clients, according to the audit.

Among the recommendations lawmakers plan to implement are removing children from their homes only if there is an imminent safety threat, being involved with law enforcement officials whenever children are removed and shifting funding from out-of-home care to in-home services for the families of children not in imminent danger.

“This is the year to do it,” Morrissette said. “This body has to have the political will to make these hard decisions.”

By TIM TALLEY Associated Press

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