In just a few weeks, the work of two years will be unveiled to the state Legislature on what to do about child abuse. Two of the key points in the report have emerged, and a legislative committee will call on increased funding.
In 2006, a law was enacted which created the Oklahoma Children and Juvenile Law Reform Committee. The committee was tasked with studying the state's laws and procedures dealing with reported child abuse and children placed in the foster care system. This law came in the wake of the tragic death of 2-year-old Kelsey Smith Briggs. The toddler was killed after being abused and sexually assaulted by her stepfather in 2005. Kelsey had been removed from her home by the state for child abuse, but was later returned.
The child's mother, Raye Dawn Smith, was found guilty by a jury of enabling child abuse after a trial in September of 2007. She was sentenced to 27 years in prison. The stepfather, Michael Porter, pled guilty to enabling child abuse and received a 30-year prison sentence.
The committee will take its findings and form a bill to be presented in the upcoming legislative session.
Gary Miller is director of the Children and Family Services Division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. The division develops policy and oversees the state's child welfare and family services programs.
"We have tried to resolve conflicts in the statutes," Miller said, speaking at an Oct. 7 workshop during a forum by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
He also said the committee is working to resolve state constitutional issues and better define legal terms regarding several issues of abuse and child custody.
But there were two important points Miller said the committee is framing for the report: better communication with both parents when dealing with the removal of a child from an abused home, and giving courts more flexibility when hearing cases of child abuse.
On the issue of communication, in cases dealing with a single parent, he said the state needs to place a greater emphasis on locating and consulting with both parents before a decision is made on where to place the child.
"Many times, we will go through the process of, 'Should the child be removed?' and where to place the child before asking, 'Where's the dad?'" Miller said.
Miller told of one case of a child and single mother where the state was nearly through the removal and placement process when the child's father suddenly emerged and wanted custody. In the area of courts, he said the committee is looking at giving courts greater latitude on how to handle child abuse cases.
"It is usually routine with child abuse that the child is removed from the home," Miller said. "We may need to give the courts the flexibility to say, 'You (adult) did the abuse, you leave.'"
The bill coming out of the committee may contain language allowing judges to remove a parent from a home who is found to be abusing his or her child. The bill will contain between 500 and 1,000 pages, Miller said.
Miller admitted that in order to fully implement the bill, additional funding will be needed. One example of extra funds is a call to hire more attorneys to represent children.
"Some counties have a significant problem having attorneys represent children," he said. "In Oklahoma County, some attorneys represent 1,100 children. The American Bar Association recommends representing 100 children."
The bill may be one of the major pieces of legislation taken up by state lawmakers when the session rolls around in February. Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, told the workshop there is a big difference between passing bills that require funding and bills with little or no funds needed.
"Bills that don't cost money, we're going to be there," Ford said of the Legislature. "(Bills) that require additional funding, that is going to be very difficult."
As part of its "Oklahoma Rising?" series, Oklahoma Gazette reported that Oklahoma ranks No. 1 in the country for child deaths from abuse and neglect per capita. During the forum, a group of legislative leaders was asked what can be done.
"Passing more laws is not the answer," said Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. "But we should not put the burden on child welfare workers."
Sen. Charlie Laster, D-Shawnee, pointed toward dealing with social ills.
"We have to attack the root causes, unemployment and substance abuse," Laster said. "Substance abuse is huge."
The 20-member committee is required by law to report its findings to the Legislature by Nov. 1. Any changes are to be completed by March 1, 2009, after the Legislature has been in session for nearly a month. "Scott Cooper