With child poverty rates above the national average, a high teen birth rate and other burgeoning factors bringing down Oklahoma's child welfare statistics, state health officials acknowledge that child abuse death rates here are high.
However, the numbers may be not as high in relation to other states as reported in federal statistics, some state medical officials said.
"The better the job you do in getting your data, the worse you look," said Mark Chaffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
In a 2002 report, Chaffin and others argued that the state's reporting raises its numbers in such a way that it appears worse than other states. Chaffin said that information reported by a national study indicating Oklahoma's child abuse death rate is far higher than other states is flawed.
"Oklahoma is recognized as having a strong child death review and tracking system," the 2002 report said. "It is likely that Oklahoma's numbers are actually more accurate than those of other states, and the bias involved in these state-to-state numbers may be due more to under-ascertainment by a large number of other states rather than due to over-ascertainment in Oklahoma or due to an actual extreme prevalence of maltreatment fatalities in Oklahoma."
"We could cut our rates by half in an hour by just not counting them," Chaffin said.
RECENTLY RELEASED REPORT
In its recently released report, "Geography Matters," the Every Child Matters Education Fund reported findings that Oklahoma's child abuse death rate was the highest in the nation " almost 5 per 100,000 and 1,233 percent higher than the lowest listed states. These alarming statistics were taken from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' "Child Maltreatment 2005" report.
In the fifth installment of Oklahoma Gazette's "Oklahoma Rising?" series published Oct. 1, an Every Child Matters Education Fund official defended the report. Annette Jacobi, chief of the Oklahoma State Department of Health's Family Support and Prevention Service, previously noted the national report tallied both child abuse and negligent deaths in Oklahoma " and not necessarily for other states. "I think it's a disservice when we look at ourselves compared to other states," Jacobi told the Gazette, "but that's not to say it's not an exceptionally worthy topic."
Realistically comparing Oklahoma's child death statistics with those of other states across the nation is not just a case of comparing apples with oranges, but comparing apples with an entire basket of different fruit, according to Barbara Bonner, a psychologist who is an associate director at OUHSC's Child Study Center.
Among the reasons, Bonner said, is that Oklahoma has a centralized system of reporting causes of death and compiling those statistics at a state level through a state medical examiner system. Other states may still be dependent on the older coroner system and death statistics are compiled county by county within a state, often without centralized, standardized practices. Some counties in other states, she said, might have one computer program for compiling death statistics while others may have another program and still others may rely on paper reports stored in a filing cabinet.
"We have always used the medical examiner system," Bonner said. "At one time, we were one of the few states that even had a state medical examiner system and that makes a huge difference."
EXAMPLE FROM FLORIDA
She gave an example from Florida this summer in which a medical professional there explained how that state's child abuse deaths are recorded.
"He said that the only deaths that are reviewed in Florida for child abuse and neglect are ones reported on a single 1-800 number," she said. "We thought he was teasing "¦ he said, 'I'm not kidding. That's the way it works in Florida.'"
Bonner said the way other states compile child death statistics is "almost random" and leads to errors in comparing those statistics on a state-by-state basis.
For instance, she said, because Oklahoma reports negligence deaths together with direct child abuse deaths " called "maltreatment fatalities" " the state's statistics end up much higher. Many other states do not report negligence in the manner that Oklahoma would, she said.
"We have an extremely broad definition of neglect," Bonner said. "You could have a child on a boat out in a lake who is without a life jacket. If the boat overturns and the child drowns, we could call that lack of supervision. Other states would call it an accident." "Ben Fenwick