Oklahoma Rising?: Part five, Children dying 

State pride swelled and the nation took notice as Oklahoma celebrated its first 100 years in 2007. After sweeping up the confetti, our state embarks on a new century invigorated with promise and hope.

While the state leads the nation in many respects, Oklahomans face significant hurdles that continue to challenge our spirit and resolve. Believe it or not, our fair city and state still dwell in the basement in several categories nationwide.


A cornerstone of Oklahoma Gazette's mission is to improve the quality of life in Central Oklahoma. Our six-part "Oklahoma Rising?" series examines several categories where our city or state ranks last. We'll examine why we're there, explain some of the root causes and look forward to alternatives for a better tomorrow.

Oklahoma abuses more children to death than any state in the nation per capita, according to a recent study.

That study, titled "Geography Matters: Child Well-Being in the States," issued by the Every Child Matters Education Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, reports that children in Oklahoma die from child abuse at a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 " or nearly 1 in 20,000 " making it the highest such death rate in the nation.

The lowest ranking state with a measurable child abuse death rate, Maine, had a death rate of 0.4 in 100,000. Several, including Delaware, Idaho, Vermont and North Dakota, listed no deaths from child abuse.

According to the study, a host of contributing factors may lead to the high death rate, including poverty, teen pregnancy, teen deaths and other issues.

In children's well-being, Oklahoma ranked 47th overall out of the 50 states. "In Oklahoma," the study found, "children are 13 times more likely to die from abuse or neglect as those in Maine."

The study poses a question: "Are Maine children, for example, Maine children first? Or are they American children first? Does every child in the U.S. deserve an equal opportunity to succeed? Or does it remain politically acceptable to permit vast differences in life chances for children as evidenced by the numbers in this brief?"

Becky Updike, a researcher for the fund and the state director for Every Child Matters in Colorado, said the stack of statistics leading to Oklahoma's negative ranking shows a deadly indifference on the part of the state to its children.

"State budgets and policies are moral documents," Updike said. "The way we spend our money tells us where our priorities are. If we are opting to not invest in children, then that's a statement about our priorities."

Annette Jacobi, chief of the Oklahoma State Department of Health's Family Support and Prevention Service, said the study counts both child abuse deaths and negligence deaths in Oklahoma at the same time, and not necessarily for other states.

"In Oklahoma and, unfortunately, for most of the country, neglect is what kills our children," Jacobi said. "We include that in our numbers and a lot of states don't. They look at intentional physical abuse."

More than 80 percent of child abuse/neglect cases in Oklahoma is due to neglect, she said.

Does it make it better that Oklahoma's children are more likely to be neglected to death?

"If a toddler wanders out of his house, and isn't supervised very well, and falls into a pool or pond and drowns, we may consider that a neglectful death," Jacobi said. "I think it's a disservice when we look at ourselves compared to other states. But that's not to say it's not an exceptionally worthy topic."

However, the study piles on other statistics that are also damning. Oklahoma ties New Mexico for 10th in the country in deaths among teens aged 15-19, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Oklahoma ties for sixth place with Louisiana in the teen birth rate, and ties for fourth with New Jersey in births to mothers with no prenatal care, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Oklahoma also ties for fifth in child poverty, along with Texas and Arkansas, according to 2006 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yes, Jacobi said, these statistics are true, and underlie Oklahoma's child abuse/neglect death rates.

"I think we have issues in this state as to how to prevent these instances from occurring to begin with," she said. "We do not spend a great deal of money on the prevention of child abuse/neglect. We spend a lot of money, time and attention on trying to deal with it after the fact."

Priorities need to be changed for children in Oklahoma, said Micah Stirling, the executive director of Oklahoma City's The Exchange Club, the Parent-Child Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

"Turning a statistic like that around is a massive undertaking," she said. "We need to change the mind-set of the people of Oklahoma. We see the pictures, we hear the stories and we shut it off as something we cannot fix. It's fixable."

Stirling said the high neglect numbers are tied to the high teen birth rate. Inexperienced, cut off from access to help, unemployed or under-employed, new parents are overwhelmed by these factors and end up hurting their children.

"We're talking about depression. And a lot of that is from poverty," she said. "Our poverty rate is high here and that's what drives a lot of these issues. You have a lot of people depressed and stressed because they don't have a job, they don't have self-worth. Then there is the crisis of  'Now I have children' "¦ in poverty."

Stirling said parent intervention programs do exist in the state, but are funded at about only 10 percent of what they need in order to turn around a statistic like Oklahoma's child abuse death rate.

"We need more resources for programs to focus on high-risk parents," she said. "We have parent intervention programs where a case worker goes in there on a weekly basis, provides education and support, tells them about resources, teaches them about realistic expectations on their children, also keeps an eye on the home, makes sure it's a safe and healthy environment on the kids and make sure everything looks right."

"The Office of Child Abuse Prevention gets $3 million," she added. "It could be 10 times what it is."

In these times of tax cuts and bank bailouts, children in need are being turned aside in favor of big business and bankers. No one is stepping in to fill the void, Updike said.

"We know that risk is only mitigated by protective factors. The only way to mitigate risk is to put protective factors in place. That can only be done with social investment in children," Updike said. "I would say that there is a role for state government. For those who think there isn't, I'd say they need to take a second look." "Ben Fenwick

After countless stories of children who were abused while in the state's foster care system, some of whom died, Children's Rights stepped in. The national child welfare advocacy group filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS), claiming the state was "victimizing its foster children." The suit alleges violation of the constitutional rights of nine children in foster care, but the overall goal is to turn the litigation into a class action aimed at revamping the foster care system.

"The first thing we are asking for is the court to find the system is operating illegally and violating children's rights," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children's Rights. "Then we're asking the court to enter a plan that would require reform of the system. It may be the system is so dysfunctional that the only way to give children a chance in the short term is for the federal court to take over the system."

The lawsuit claims under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, states assume a duty to protect children from harm when a child is placed in foster care. The complaint filed by nine children also alleges the state has violated an agreement with the federal government when it receives federal funds to care for foster children by not following federal regulations in regards to child welfare.

The lawsuit was filed in Tulsa and a federal judge is weighing two decisions before moving forward with the case. The first is whether the case should be dismissed, as the state is arguing, and the second is whether to deem the litigation a class-action suit. If the plaintiffs succeed on both accounts, and eventually win the case, it arguably could bring about a massive reform for Oklahoma children not seen since the early days of desegregation.

There are more than 10,000 children in the state's foster care system in which millions of dollars are spent each year to remove children from harmful situations and find adequate shelter.

The state has asked the court to dismiss the case on several grounds, including a failure to provide a "short and plain statement" of the allegation, and that the nine children are not represented by proper parties to file the lawsuit. The children comprising the litigation are only named by initials and represented by adults labeled "Next Friend." In some cases, the Next Friend is a court-appointed advocate for a child in DHS custody.

The children range in age from 5 months to 16 years, are removed from their birth parents and have been shopped around by the state to foster homes and shelters an average of 11 times. Two of the defendants, including a 12-year-old boy who's been in foster care for the past eight years, have been moved more than 20 times.

Gov. Brad Henry has also been named as a defendant in the lawsuit as the chief executive officer of the state. Henry filed a separate brief from the other state defendants, claiming he should be removed from the lawsuit.

In his brief, Henry claimed the lawsuit is not directed at him, and that just because he is the governor does not mean he should be thrown in the mix.

"Plaintiffs have not all alleged any action of the governor," Henry's brief reads.

The governor also used the "Next Friend" argument to dismiss the case.

"Plaintiff 'next friends' were appointed specifically to represent the children's best interests in Oklahoma state court juvenile proceedings," the brief stated. "They were not appointed to bring a federal class action."

On legal advice, Henry did not respond to a request for an interview about the lawsuit. When asked to name one thing he has done to stem the state's problem of child abuse deaths, the governor gave no response.

Oklahoma Gazette also made numerous requests to speak with someone at DHS, but the requests went unanswered.

Some of the group homes have injected themselves in the case, siding with the state. The consortium of group homes is used by DHS for placement of certain children. In a brief to the court, the group claimed, should the plaintiffs prevail, "the impact on the group homes would drastically impair their ability to serve the unique needs of their residents."

DHS has at least 15 attorneys assigned to the state's defense, more than half coming from private practice.

The plaintiffs are not only engaged in a battle to keep the case alive, their requests for DHS files on the nine children are not coming easily.

"One of the questions is whether we have received all of the documents and clearly we have not gotten all of the children's records," said the New York-based Lowry. "One (DHS) worker said he had found eight or 10 reports with allegations of abuse while in foster care he had on his desk that nobody had asked him for."

The records Lowry and her team of lawyers have depict children abused in ways unimaginable.

G.C., now 13, has been a ward of the state since she was 9 when investigators discovered her stepfather had been sexually abusing the child since the age of 4. She was placed with her step-grandparents who whipped her with a leather strap, according to court documents. DHS attempted to place G.C. with her aunt and uncle, but deemed their home unsafe after finding trash, beer cans and dirty diapers across the front lawn. But a month later, DHS placed G.C. in that home.

A year later, the state removed G.C. and placed her in an inpatient facility where she was sexually assaulted by a male resident, the lawsuit claims. Since August of 2007, G.C. lived in five different foster homes, began self-mutilating herself and is now back in the facility where she was sexually assaulted, the brief states.

"It's like these children have been set out in the woods and have to find their own way," Lowry said. "There is no sense of management in children's cases. What we've seen in these cases is children being placed in shelters and foster homes with no follow-up when something bad happens to the child and then the child just gets moved on. There is no sense of any kind of organizational responsibility to these children."

This is not the first case Children's Rights brought upon a state. The organization successfully reformed, through litigation, child welfare systems in 13 states, including Georgia, New York, Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee, as well as Washington, D.C.

But Lowry said Oklahoma is the worst case she has encountered.

"I have never seen so many children treated so badly in foster care. It's really a revelation." "Scott Cooper

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