Don't be surprised if Oklahoma is No. 1 in the nation next year for abuse and neglect of children in foster care, state officials say.
The expected rank won't be due to more assaults on children, officials say. But there will be better data collection by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, a change in the standard confirming allegations and continued uneven national reporting to the federal government.
The child welfare improvement plan submitted for approval March 30 would require DHS to include reports of abuse and neglect occurring at group homes, inpatient facilities and shelters, which are considered higher levels of foster care.
These were left out when DHS would report the safety rating of children in out-of-home care. Oklahoma is one of 11 states omitting this information.
"We were honestly reporting our data every year, and we recognize that we were not giving a true picture of the rate of abuse and neglect by not including group homes or shelters," said DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell. "We feel like it needs to be reported to get an accurate view of safety in foster care."
Under the current reporting practice, these cases would not have been included:
Two teens living in a Pittsburg County independent living program were sexually assaulted by Rocky Wade Johnson, the coordinator of that DHS program, according to a federal lawsuit filed in September 2010. Johnson pleaded guilty to child abuse a year ago and was given a 10-year suspended sentence. DHS settled for $25,000, paid by its insurance, for each of the victims.
A 5-month-old child suffered a skull fracture after being dropped at a shelter by a worker who was carrying two babies at once, according to a 2008 federal class-action lawsuit against DHS by Children Rights.
A 16-month-old boy received first- and second-degree burns at a shelter due to a lack of supervision, according to the class-action lawsuit.
A 13-year-old developmentally disabled girl in foster care was sexually assaulted at an institutional facility, the lawsuit states.
Children's Rights had argued Oklahoma had one of the highest rates of abuse of foster children in the nation and had poor data collection. The lawsuit led to the settlement agreement pending approval by a three-person monitoring panel.
New data collection
The national standard for keeping children safe while in foster care is 99.68 percent - meaning that less than half a percent of foster children will experience harm.
Oklahoma has not reached that standard since at least 2006, with safety ratings from 98.78 to 99.43 percent. Last year, 22 states including Oklahoma did not reach that threshold. New York had the worst rating at 97.67 percent.
Officials expect the safety rating to get worse by up to a percent with the changes.
Each year, Oklahoma reports its data for the annual Child Maltreatment Report to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System through its statewide automated system, which is one of nine federally approved systems in the nation.
When the system was established, the federal government approved the categories of data to be submitted, Powell said. A note is included in the report stating Oklahoma does not include reports at institutions.
"The federal government has known that from day one," Powell said.
In Oklahoma, there are two units investigating allegations of abuse and neglect.
Investigations at group homes, shelters and institutions are handled by the Office of Client Advocacy, and all other allegations are investigated by the Child Protection Services unit. Both investigatory bodies are within DHS.
The state automated data system tracked only the reports by the Child Protection Services unit for national reporting.
Under the improvement plan, reports from the two units will be merged into the same data-collection system.
The units also have different standards in deciding whether an allegation is true or has merit. The units have different burdens of proof, screening and investigative processes and timelines for completing an investigation.
The child welfare plan would change the burden of proof substantiating an allegation and making a finding to have "some credible evidence," which is the more basic standard of the two units.
"Because this is the lowest burden of proof, there may be more abuse and neglect substantiated," the plan states.
No national standard
A sticking point in comparing states in all child abuse and neglect categories has centered around the varied laws states created to define whether abuse or neglect has occurred.
The 2010 national report lists Oklahoma with a rate of child abuse and neglect at 7.8 per 1,000 children - tied with North Dakota at 28th in the U.S.
The highest rate is Washington, D.C., at 23.4 followed by New York at 17.4 and Massachusetts at 17. The lowest is Pennsylvania at 1.3.
Oklahoma ranks seventh in child deaths due to abuse or neglect, with 27 deaths due to maltreatment for a rate of 2.94 per 100,000 children, according to the report.
"There is no one national standard or definition telling states how to measure child abuse and neglect," Powell said. "All states measure it differently and report it differently."
Oklahoma's standard for confirming whether child abuse or neglect has occurred in foster homes is "credible" evidence. Other states may have more strict or flexible standards.
For example, Pennsylvania's standard is "substantial evidence or clear and convincing/beyond reasonable doubt," according to the national report. Many states require a "preponderance" or "reasonable" types of proof for a confirmation.
"Those are a much higher level of evidence to substantiate abuse or neglect," Powell said.
She said using that standard may exclude Oklahoma's thousands of confirmed cases, especially in neglect because those children may not show signs of physical abuse. Neglect accounts for at least 80 percent of confirmations and often have to do with a lack of proper care and supervision.
"If you just say, 'Oklahoma is No. 1 in child abuse and neglect,' that is misleading if people don't understand that states measure and define child abuse and neglect differently," Powell said.