Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rep. Peters responds to negative comments by DHS commissioners about foster care law, child deaths

A front page story in the Sunday Oklahoman by Randy Ellis reports that the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Oklahoma Human Services Commission are blaming a new law for the recent deaths of two children that were not removed from their homes by DHS and the courts.

Rep. Ron Peters
Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, is the Chair of the House Human Services Appropriation and Budget Committee and authored the new law. He issued the following statement today addressing the comments by the DHS commissioners:

After continuing to see Commissioners Wilkinson and DeVaughn blaming this child's death on HB 1734 I wonderif they have ever read the bill. They continually state that the law "requires officials to determine there is an imminent safety threat to the child before it can be removed."

Although it is difficult to fully assess the actions taken (or not) without fully reviewing the case file and investigation notes, the information provided by the OCCY report makes it difficult to understand why protective action, including removal of the children, was not taken much earlier in this family situation.

I do not believe that the problems in this case resulted from the Statute, but rather from the interpretation and decision-making regarding what constitutes a “safety threat” in a case involving drugs.

Under the Statute, "Investigation" means
a response to an allegation of abuse or neglect that involves a serious and immediate threat to the safety of the child, making it necessary to determine: (1) the current safety of a child and the risk of subsequent abuse or neglect, and (2) whether child abuse or neglect occurred and whether the family needs prevention- and intervention-related services.
The changes to the Oklahoma Statutes do not actually define “imminent safety threat,” the term used by the Commissioners to describe what went wrong in this case. However, a similar term “safety threat” is defined as meaning:
the threat of serious harm due to child abuse or neglect occurring in the present or the very near future and without the intervention of another person, a child would likely or in all probability sustain severe or permanent disability or injury, illness or death;
Also, the definitions of child abuse and neglect referenced in this definition were not changed from previous law.
Oklahoma Statutes require “a safety evaluation of a child’s situation by the Department using a structured, evidence-based tool to determine if the child is subject to a safety threat.”

In Oklahoma and around the country, a safety assessment tool is used for this purpose. The tool generally lists 12-15 factors that identify the presence of imminent danger. It is then up to the investigator to determine whether there is reason to believe that the factor exists and creates imminent danger. I have no idea on what basis, certainly not based on HB 1734, a person could say that evidence of drug abuse is not sufficient grounds to remove a child “without a DWI or a syringe in reach of a child to meet ‘imminent safety threat.’" This is obviously not in statue and it is difficult to believe it is in any of the internal standards that DHS may have developed. If so, the standards should be reconsidered.

For this family, clearly the substance use was the primary issue that impacted the safety of the children. There is general agreement in child protection agencies that, in families where substance use is occurring, there are two primary factors that must be taken into account when assessing for a safety threat or imminent danger.
  • Is the use of the drug, including overuse of prescription drugs, impacting the parent’s ability to provide for the basic needs of the children – supervision, protection, and care? The extent of the negative usage and impact, the ages of the children, and other environmental factors are taken into consideration. OR
  • Is the type of drug used considered so dangerous that imminent danger exists even when there is no clear information about the effects on the parent’s ability to provide for the children’s needs? Usually methamphetamine, crack, and heroin are identified as the drugs that automatically create imminent danger because of their highly addictive nature and the overwhelming evidence that parents are not able to function at an acceptable level when using these substances.
In addition, children who have no ability to fend for themselves, such as those under one year of age, are always considered at greater risk. When any of these factors is present, the investigator should have only two choices: put a safety plan into place that is well-structured and closely monitored or remove the children. It appears that neither occurred during any of these investigations, and it wasn't as the Commissioners have alleged, due to language in HB 1734.
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