The headquarters of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services  in Oklahoma City. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

Oklahoma has been slow to remove children from abusive foster homes in some instances and children in state custody continue to experience abuse and neglect at “an alarmingly high rate,” according to a new report from the monitors of a class action, civil rights settlement to improve Oklahoma’s child welfare system.

The report, authored by three co-neutrals tasked with monitoring the progress on the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan settlement, details troubling cases of abuse in Oklahoma foster homes, including two separate instances where the Oklahoma Department of Human Services continued to place children in foster homes where there had been past allegations of sexual abuse.

In another instance, it took DHS over a year substantiate abuse at a foster home after a six-year old boy reported multiple instances of his foster parents hitting him with a fly swatter, a belt and a back scratcher.

Overall, the co-neutrals found a lack of good-faith effort toward meeting nine out of 30 metrics to improve the child welfare system, including reducing cases of child abuse and neglect for children in state care. Oklahoma’s failure to comply with the terms of the 2012 settlement could trigger a federal takeover of the child welfare system.

“Children in foster care are not safe in Oklahoma there is no question of that,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, attorney for the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit that resulted in the Pinnacle Plan settlement.

State says monitors have ignored its progress to reduce maltreatment 

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services is pushing back against the co-neutrals’ report, arguing it does not provide an accurate depiction of the progress the state has made to reduce cases of abuse and neglect of children in state care.

“That’s one of the most important areas we focus on and is one in which we believe the co-neutrals have not considered all of our good faith efforts,” Sheree Powell, a spokeswoman for DHS, said in an email.

The co-neutrals did not seem to take into account state law that requires Oklahoma to confirm “threat of harm” to a child —which means abuse or neglect hasn’t occurred but could possibly occur, Powell said.

Oklahoma’s rate of mistreatment of children in state care is higher than other states in part because of the way the state law is written, she said.

DHS claims in its rebuttal to the co-neutrals’ report that out of 123 substantiated cases of maltreatment of children in state care between October 2017 and March 2018, 65 percent were cases of “threat of harm.”

“These children did not experience actual abuse or neglect,” DHS said. “….The Co-Neutrals stated DHS was making good faith efforts to address Maltreatment in Care and praised the department in their last commentary. Now, the Co-Neutrals make little effort to hide what is now a systemic condemnation of DHS’s efforts to address Maltreatment in Care while
making no effort at all to account for their prior assessment.”

Report claims Oklahoma slow to act on reports of abuse in foster homes

The report details several cases where DHS was slow to act on allegations of sexual and physical abuse in foster homes.

In October 2017, DHS found that a foster father had sexually abused two children who were previously placed in the home— more than a year after one of the children first reported to a counselor that she was being molested. During the investigation, both of the children disclosed sexual abuse by the foster father; however, because the child and her sister
“each reported different events regarding the same time frames” DHS closed the investigation as unsubstantiated and both foster children remained in the home.

“DHS documented that the children were ‘safe’ in the home as a safety plan had been established that the foster father ‘will not be left alone with either of the children,’” according to the report.

The state placed a total of ten additional children in the home before it was closed in October 2017, despite the department’s determination that foster children were unsafe in the care of the foster father in the home.

In another example outlined in the report, DHS substantiated a foster home for the sexual abuse of two siblings after the foster home had been investigated twice before for “allegations of sexual abuse against the foster father by several foster children placed in the home.”

“Children in the home disclosed [that the foster father] had become extremely intoxicated and touched them inappropriately. Three separate foster children disclosed fondling and grooming type behaviors by [the foster father],” DHS noted in its referral history.

Both reports were unsubstantiated at the time and the home continued to care for foster children for another two years.
A pair of siblings were placed in the foster home in May 2016, nearly two years after the initial child disclosures of abuse in the home.

“While only placed in the foster home for one month, both siblings were sexually abused by the foster father,” according to the co-neutral’s report.

It took DHS over a year and three investigation referrals to substantiate the physical abuse of a The child first reported in January 2016 that “he was hit with a flyswatter” and later disclosed to his daycare provider that his “[foster mother] hit him with a belt.”

During this investigation, the child disclosed that “when he gets into trouble at home, he is hit with a belt while his clothes are on.”

Caseworkers did not take any actions to address the foster home’s use of inappropriate discipline or talk with the foster parent about discipline methods used in the home, according to the co-neutrals report.

In June 2017, DHS receive a report from its child abuse hotline that the boy had scratch marks on his face. He told caseworkers his foster mother “had whooped him with a wood backscratcher.”

The boy’s four-year old sister also disclosed that she had “gotten whopped with a belt” in the home.

DHS argues that the cases of abuse outlined in the report are only anecdotal and do not provide an accurate overall depiction of the state’s child welfare system.

“Offering up specific cases to justify the Co-Neutrals’ assessment is inappropriate, particularly when they fail to provide the full context and circumstances of the event. Such efforts fall outside the scope of the Co-Neutrals’ responsibilities to assess good faith efforts on a systemic scale.”

The initial five-year deadline for Oklahoma to comply with all of the terms of the Pinnacle Plan lapsed in December 2016.

The co-neutrals could now decide take some issues addressed in the latest status report back to federal court in order to force the state to make improvements.

“At this point we are past 7 years into a settlement that was supposed to last five year and the state has still not managed to protect children,” Lowry said.

Further reading: With nowhere else to go, some of state’s most vulnerable kids end up at Tulsa’s Laura Dester shelter

Co-Neutral 10th Commentary – Final (with DHS Comments)