Oklahoma’s Worst in Nation Child Abuse Ranking Called “Deceiving”

Oklahoma’s Worst in Nation Child Abuse Ranking Called “Deceiving”

Oklahoma ranked No. 1 for child abuse cases in the foster care system in 2015, according to a report released this year by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services said this statistic is “deceiving.”

“We know that our abuse and neglect rate or the numbers of abuse and neglect of the kids that are in our foster care system is way too high,” state DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said.

“The problem with that [report] is every state’s laws are different when it comes to defining abuse and neglect, so it’s a bit deceiving when you start comparing states or ranking them in that way,” she said.

DEFINING ABUSE

In Oklahoma, abuse is defined in part as, “…harm or threatened harm or failure to protect from harm or threatened harm to the health, safety, or welfare of a child by a person responsible for the child’s health, safety, or welfare.”

Powell said other states require evidence, not threats alone, for cases to qualify as abusive. The federal government does not distinguish how definitions differ between states in national reports, she said. Evidence is not required for cases to be considered abusive in Oklahoma.

In Texas, physical abuse must result in an injury or a legitimate threat. Emotional abuse is determined by an “observable effect on the child,” according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services says maltreatment occurs when a child is harmed, allowed to be harmed or does not have their basic needs met.

THE NUMBERS

Currently, there are about 9,600 children in Oklahoma’s foster care system. Standards set by the federal government say that 99.78 percent of children in the system should be free from experiencing abuse and neglect, Powell said.

Data from September 2016 showed that the percentage of children who are not experiencing maltreatment in foster care was 98.74 percent, meaning that .26 percent of children in foster care have experienced abuse or neglect. Oklahoma is 1.04 percent short of the percentage required by the federal government.

“So we’re getting very, very close to that national standard,” Powell said.

DHS has implemented additional safety measures to look more closely for potential red flags since that data was recorded.

“We’re having them [caseworkers] ask a lot more questions, look at a lot more things and pay attention to a lot more things. We’re also paying very close attention to any allegation of abuse or neglect against a foster family,” Powell said.

From November 2016 through January 2017, there were 39 children who experienced abuse or neglect in foster care.

“That’s a lot lower than the previous quarters of the year, so we’re starting to see those numbers come down,” she said. “It’s that extra monitoring and extra vigilance that’s starting to pay off.”

CHILD ABUSE OUTSIDE OF FOSTER CARE

Child abuse in Oklahoma is not only prevalent in the foster care system.

More than 57,000 children in the state were involved in an investigation or received an alternative response from Child Protective Services in 2015, according to the report. The report also shows there were nearly 14,500 child victims in 2015.

One UCO student shared her experience of growing up in a home with child abuse. She chose to remain anonymous.

She said she was verbally and physically abused by her ex-stepfather as a child.

“He came across the room and he grabbed me by my neck and held me up against the wall … He told me I was worthless,” she said.

She said the abuse sometimes would start outside the house. But no neighbors ever reported the abuse, she said.

She said her ex-stepfather also abused her mother. One night, when she and her siblings were in their rooms, she heard her ex-stepfather yelling at her mother and telling her she was useless, she said.

“He dragged her by her hair to the bedroom,” she said. “I could actually hear him hitting her.”

Regardless of the challenges, she and her mother stuck together.

“My mom, she’s like my rock. We always say it’s me and her against the world,” she said. “I can’t even remember her leaving, ever.”

When she was 12-years-old, her mother remarried to her current stepfather.

“He changed everything for us,” she said her new “stepdad just showed us that a father can be loving. He can be caring.”

Now, she is studying Criminal Justice and Forensic Science with the goal of working for the FBI to stop abusers. She said being a survivor fuels her passion to help others overcome their past experiences and realize their value.

“You can either rise above what has happened in your life or you can fall victim to it as well,” she said. “I’m going to go out there and I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity I have.”

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