Report decries Oklahoma DHS caseloads
Document in class-action looks at 7 cases in which kids in state care were not protected
BY RANDY ELLIS 54 Comments Published: March 25, 2010
TULSA — It took the Oklahoma Department of Human Services two years to refer one foster child for a psychological or psychiatric evaluation even though the girl had a history of sexual abuse and had been cutting herself to “release the pain.”
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Another foster child was subjected to at least 81 placement changes and had 97 caseworkers and 88 supervisors during 10 years and 9 months of her time in DHS custody.
These are just two of many findings contained in a supplemental report filed Wednesday in a 2008 Tulsa federal class-action lawsuit that is seeking to reform Oklahoma’s child welfare system.
The report was prepared by Peg McCartt Hess, an independent child welfare consultant who was retained by a New York child advocacy organization called Children’s Rights to review the files of seven Oklahoma foster children.
She identified eight areas where there appear to be systemic failures in Oklahoma’s caring for children who are the victims of abuse or neglect.
Hess said the primary goal of DHS placements is supposed to keep children safe, but DHS failed to accomplish that in each of the seven cases she reviewed.
“When attempting to describe the children’s harm and suffering, the words that come to mind are incomprehensible, unimaginable, outrageous and immoral,” Hess wrote. “These tragic stories were wholly preventable.”
Children’s Rights attorneys have blamed excessive caseloads for many of Oklahoma’s child welfare failures.
They asked a judge Wednesday to force DHS attorneys to turn over documents that would reveal the full caseloads of Oklahoma child welfare workers.
So far, DHS officials have only turned over primary caseload numbers and claim they don’t systematically track secondary caseload numbers, Children’s Rights attorneys said.
Primary caseloads are children assigned to workers in the counties where they are taken into custody. When a child is placed in a foster home in another county, which often occurs, a secondary caseworker is assigned to visit the child in the home.
Counting just primary caseloads greatly undercounts an employee’s workload, Children’s Rights attorneys said. They cited documentation they had obtained for two Oklahoma workers that showed one had a primary caseload of 27 children but was actually overseeing 43, and the other had a primary caseload of 31 children but was actually responsible for 60.
Donald Bingham,a Tulsa attorney representing DHS, responded by saying DHS already has provided opposing attorneys with more than 600,000 pages of documents.
“We have complied with every valid request for additional documents,” Bingham said. “The attorneys for Children’s Rights frequently have not been specific in describing the documents they seek.”
DHS is willing to turn over thousands of more documents if they are “reasonably described and are relevant and if the expense of producing them is not too great a burden on Oklahoma taxpayers,” Bingham said.
While attorneys fight over documents, Hess claims children have been suffering.
Concerning the girl who belatedly received psychological care despite a history of sexual abuse and self-harm, Hess said a review of her file revealed DHS placed her in settings where she was maltreated for three-fourths of the four years and three months that were reviewed.
At least 16 child abuse or neglect allegations were received regarding the girl while she was in DHS custody. Only seven were classified as referrals, and three of those seven were “screened out,” Hess said.
Nine other complaints weren’t even given referrals. Hess called that a “potentially life-threatening and irresponsible ongoing agency practice which precluded investigation of any of these allegations.”
Although a shelter social worker recommended the girl be placed in therapeutic foster care when she was first taken into custody, she was instead placed in “unqualified and/or unprepared placements in which she was repeatedly beaten, exposed to domestic violence, neglected and abandoned by her caregivers,” Hess wrote.
Elaborating on the girl who was subjected to at least 81 placement changes, Hess wrote that she was placed twice with a relative whose home had not been approved by DHS and where her abusive father continued to live.
Six other times the girl was placed in a single therapeutic foster care home, even though those foster parents continually failed to protect her from injuring herself and DHS workers repeatedly documented her suicidal and homicidal threats, self-abuse, physical assault on her foster care parents and serious damage to property.
Bingham said he had not yet had the chance to review the report, but he said the first child was placed in the permanent guardianship of an aunt several months ago and the second girl has reached the age of 18.
Both girls are now out of state custody, he said.
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