Picking Up The Pieces
High-profile child abuse cases have placed Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services under increased scrutiny, but the core issues go far beyond any one agency.
Five-year-old Shana’s father taped her eyes during drinking bouts and gave her to his buddies to use as a sex toy. Suffering from trauma and reattachment disorder when rescued by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS), Shana soon found a stable home when foster parents Robert and Katherine B. adopted her.
At 8 years old, she came across a handgun locked in a pickup truck and shot Robert through the hand while he was napping to, as she impishly put it, “see what it felt like.” She stabbed cats with butcher knives and lured a 2-year-old child away from home with the intent to murder her. Robert and Katherine locked their bedroom door at night for fear the damaged little girl would kill them in their sleep. Finally returned to DHS for psychiatric treatment, Shana attempted to poison staff workers by pouring Drano into their tea. She is now in the custody of juvenile authorities until she turns 18.
Looking For A Home
Shana accents some of the major challenges confronting Oklahoma and indeed the nation when it comes to child abuse and neglect. Hundreds of Oklahoma kids suffer abuse or the after-effects of abuse (PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder) while they bounce from place to place through the DHS system like boomerang children looking for a home. In its “Foster Care Case Review” of Oklahoma DHS completed in February 2011, the Center for The Support of Families headquartered in Silver Springs, Maryland, concludes that “apart from the incidence of child maltreatment. . .the bouncing of children from one placement setting to another is one of the most disconcerting findings. . .”
The frequency with which a child changes placements may indicate not only past abuse but may also predict future abuse while in primary care homes and foster care administered by DHS. According to the Silver Springs report, 55 percent of children under DHS care in Oklahoma experience four or more different placements, with 14 percent being moved 10 or more times.
As examples, the report cited a 16-year-old girl with Down syndrome who switched placements 12 times during her first year in DHS custody; a 5-year-old girl who boomeranged through seven placements in her first six months; a 7-year-old with 14 different placements; an 11-year-old boy with 19 placements.
In defense of The Department of Human Services, DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell counters that many “moves” referenced in the Silver Springs report are not actually moves. “If a child goes to foster care so his regular foster parents can have a weekend off, that is counted as a move.”
However, she concedes that children are bounced about more frequently than she likes, for a variety of reasons, but that DHS constantly strives to stabilize children to reduce abuse and neglect.
“Although you wouldn’t know it by the focus of the news media,” she says, “the trend of child abuse in Oklahoma is actually declining in past years. Because we have laws and policies and procedures does not mean that we can always predict or prevent violence.”
Child Abuse Deaths
Several high-profile abuse deaths of children in recent years prompted a class action lawsuit (D.G. v. Henry) and opened Oklahoma to national scrutiny. The “Child Maltreatment 2009 Report” lists Oklahoma as having “the third worst rate in the nation…five times the acceptable national standard” for abused or neglected children under state care. According to the widely publicized 2008 report by Every Child Matters Education Fund, only two states rank statistically higher than Oklahoma in state-care child abuse: New York and Mississippi.
In June 2011, 5-year-old Serenity Deal died of a savage beating after DHS removed her from the custody of her mother and placed her with her father. The father, Sean Devon Brooks, has been charged with first-degree murder. Four long-time DHS workers were fired or suspended over having vouched before a judge that Brooks’ home was a safe environment.
Caseworkers left Alexis Morris, 6, and her younger brother Jordan in the care of their father and stepmother, even though DHS had received at least 27 reports of suspected child abuse involving the siblings. Two natural children of the stepmother, Jennifer Jimenez, had previously died under “unusual circumstances.” Donte Jimenez was 3 when he choked to death on a hot dog. Three-month-old Eric died of what medical examiners described as “undetermined causes.”
In September 2009, Jimenez’ stepdaughter Alexis died with “multiple contusions and abrasions on the scalp, back, buttocks, right flank, lower extremities and on the face.” Jimenez claimed the little girl fell from a bunk bed. Pottawatomie County charged the stepmother with “child abuse” leading to death.
Other child deaths associated with DHS include Melissa Ellison, 5, beaten to death by her father and dumped near Meeker; Aja Johnson, 7, kidnapped and killed by her stepfather; Maggie May Trammel, 10 days old, stuffed into a washing machine and drowned; Tamberlyn Wheeler, 3 months old, starved to death in a box that substituted for a crib.
These deaths, says Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele (R-Shawnee), raise “significant questions” about the approach used in caring for children in custody of DHS.
According to DHS statistics, 129 children have died while in state custody over the past decade, of which 54 were due to natural causes such as SIDS, cancer or drug exposure during pregnancy. Thirty-seven died as a result of abuse or neglect they sustained before they entered DHS care. Seven kids were killed while in foster care or in resource homes. Children like Serenity Deal, Alexis Morris, Melissa Ellison and the others were not technically in state custody.
During the Fiscal Year ending in 2010, Oklahoma DHS assessed and investigated 45,811 cases of possible child abuse or neglect, of which 7,248 were substantiated or required further action. Only a small percentage eventually came into DHS custody. Currently, there are about 8,000 children under the care of about 1,000 DHS employees and caseworkers.
The class action lawsuit (D.G. v Henry) filed in February 2008 by Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group, contends that one of every eight children in foster care administered by Oklahoma DHS has suffered confirmed abuse or neglect. The case is due to go to trial in February 2012. So far, Children’s Rights has filed lawsuits in at least 14 states charging systemic abuse of children in state care.
“Low-Bar High-Bar Abuse”
Powell points out that statistics against Oklahoma may be skewed. States define child abuse differently and therefore report and treat it differently. Oklahoma has a very low bar for identifying child abuse and neglect while other states have a much higher bar. An incident officially noted in Oklahoma may not reach that status in a “high-bar” state like Pennsylvania. Studies show that as many as 50 to 60 percent of child abuses in “high-bar” Colorado and Nevada are not recorded as such.
The case of a retail store that notified DHS over a roll of film left for processing illustrates Oklahoma’s “low-bar” for handling child abuse reports. One of the frames depicted a nude 2-year-old. DHS investigated and found child abuse allegations unfounded. Nonetheless, the report becomes an official Oklahoma statistic of “child abuse.” Should something actually occur to the child later on, DHS will be held at fault for not having taken further action.
Child Deaths Underreported
While incidences of child maltreatment in Oklahoma may be declining, as Powell maintains, whether defined through “high-bar” or “low-bar,” the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) reports that the number and rate of child fatalities nationwide have been increasing over past years – and that they are commonly underreported. According to NCANDS, there were 1,770 child abuse fatalities in the United States in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. Very young children, those four and under, are the most frequent victims of abuse leading to death.
Certain characteristics reappear in the profiles of child abusers. Perpetrators are frequently young adults in their mid-20s, without high school diplomas, living below the poverty line, depressed, and having difficulty in coping with stress. A stepfather or “boyfriend” is often media-stereotyped as being most likely to abuse a child. However, DHS statistics show that females abuse at a rate of 56 percent over males at 44 percent. Natural mothers lead the stats at 46.38 percent with natural fathers at 30.49 percent. Step-parents and foster or adoptive parents trail at 5.38 percent and 2 percent, respectively, as the least likely to commit abuse.
“Statistically, children are in much more danger in abusive natural homes than they are through DHS intervention,” Powell points out.
The most common reasons for a child being taken into DHS custody start with what is broadly defined as disregard for the child’s safety, at a rate of 58.8 percent. Substance abuse follows and frequently overlaps at 58 percent. Environmental neglect (31.6 percent) and domestic violence (28.9 percent) are next in line.
“They Still Send the Child Home”
Drug abuse is a factor in many of Oklahoma’s child abuse deaths. In 2010, at least seven infants died of birth complications resulting from mommy’s drug use. The Tulsa World uncovered 35 deaths of infants between January 2007 and November 2011 caused by exposure to drugs. While hospitals are required to ask delivering mothers about their alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, they are not required to ask about the use of illicit substances.
Dr. Joseph Johnson, chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at OSU Medical Center, Tulsa, sees such patients all the time. “(Mother) is as high as a kite,” he exclaims. “There’s no way she can take care of the baby – and they send the child home with her.”
DHS does not have adequate resources and staff to remove every child born drug positive to illicit substances, says Claudette Selph, a member of the governor-appointed Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
Frequently, such children become victims.
The mother of 17-month-old Ahonesty Hicks admitted smoking cigarettes laced with PCP when her boyfriend killed the little girl in May 2011. Lyndsey Dawn Fiddler confessed to using morphine and meth when she drowned her 10-day-old daughter Maggie May in November 2010 by tossing her into the spin cycle of her washing machine.
“The Family is Disintegrating”
Police are often the first responders in cases of suspected child neglect or abuse. Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz believes the trend of child violence may be part of the “me” generation of family and community breakdown.
“The family is disintegrating,” he says. “The church community isn’t as large as it once was. What we have is an increase in parents who simply don’t care – and much of that is due to drugs, especially amphetamines.”
Hot Potato Issue
For politicians, child abuse involving DHS is a “hot potato” issue. “Reform” of the DHS system has continued since at least the Adopting and Safe Families Act of 1997. Amendments to it under the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act and the Kelsey Smith-Briggs Child Reform Act of the same year have strived to improve the way the state cares for its most vulnerable children. Many politicians attempt to avoid the issue by delivering press statements and declining to answer direct questions. Governor Mary Fallin’s deputy press secretary, Alex Gerszewski, would comment only that the Governor’s office would send out press releases to answer questions.
Nine volunteer commissioners headed by Oklahoma City businessman Brad Yarbrough oversee the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. In September 2011, the commissioners convened a special committee headed by former Oklahoma County DA Wes Lane to review Oklahoma child abuse deaths and recommend changes. House Speaker Steele also announced he is forming a legislative taskforce to investigate the matter.
“Reforms” seem to follow a set pattern in assessing systemic failures such as those addressed in the D.G. v Henry lawsuit:
• DHS policies and procedures lack definition, specificity, rigor and are inadequate;
• Methods for screening and investigating alleged abuse and neglect are seriously flawed;
• DHS sometimes fails to identify abusive, neglectful or dangerous caregivers;
• Caseworkers are underpaid which contributes to a high turnover rate;
• Employee supervision is often lax;
• DHS is severely underfunded and understaffed;
• Children are too often bounced around from place to place. . .
“Pieces of reform are implemented, but overall reform never happens,” observes Sheryl Marseilles, director of Oklahoma CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).
CASA is a volunteer, nonprofit organization whose unpaid advocates are appointed by judges to watch over and speak up for abused and neglected children in the overburdened legal and social services system until each child is placed in a safe, permanent home and the case is closed.
“Going through the child welfare system is a scary process. No child should have to do it alone,” continues Marseilles. “A CASA volunteer is often the one constant in these children’s lives, the only adult who cares for them. None of the children who were murdered were under CASA supervision.”
Other nonprofits such as Prevent Child Abuse Oklahoma contend that legal and political reform is not enough.
“We need to invest in prevention rather than strictly intervention,” recommends Billie Brown, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Oklahoma. “We strive for public awareness of the importance of family help programs in reducing child abuse.”
Her support worker volunteers are assigned to families identified as at-risk for child abuse and make regular home visits focused on child development, family crisis management and parent education. They also conduct classes on parenting and other family matters.
One Tragic Fact
DHS is constantly struggling to make the system better, says Sheree Powell, sometimes by borrowing programs initiated by CASA and other volunteer groups. “Trauma Informed Training,” for example, was introduced to help foster parents, caseworkers and others in contact with traumatized kids like Shana to cut down on behavior issues and hopefully alleviate bouncing children from place to place.
“You have to judge the DHS program in its entirety,” Powell says. “We see the good we do, the shining successes, and, sometimes, as well, the grand failures.”
Director Howard H. Hendrick, a former state senator and DHS director since 1998, adds that what “keeps me going is the difference (our) employees make in the lives of vulnerable people.”
In the blame game for what has gone wrong and who is responsible, one tragic fact stands out above everything else. No program, no matter how efficient, can completely eliminate child abuse, neglect and murder. At the core of the problem are dysfunctional parents and families, fractured homes in which violence and death burst to the surface to leave shattered lives and the broken bodies of boomerang children looking for a home.
“Unfortunately,” Powell concludes, “we can’t always predict what will happen in dealing with human nature. Child protection is sometimes an ugly business, and sometimes a very tragic business. Considering we’re dealing with broken homes, mental health, financial problems, drug and alcohol abuse…it’s not amazing that we have child abuse but that we have so few instances of child abuse.”