OKLAHOMA CITY -- A self-proclaimed child advocacy group filed a motion in federal court last month attempting to exploit the tragic death of an Oklahoma child to create publicity for their lawsuit. The filing on Dec. 21, 2010 is the most recent action by New York-based Children’s Rights in the ongoing class-action lawsuit the group filed against the State of Oklahoma.
Children’s Rights attempted to include details of the Maggie Mae Trammel case as possible evidence in their class-action lawsuit. Trammel was the 10-day-old baby in Bartlesville who died after being placed in a washing machine. Lindsay Fiddler, the child’s mother, has been charged with the baby’s death. Trammel and her siblings were not in state custody at the time of her death.
Children’s Rights has a long history of lawsuits against child protective agencies across the country. When the group filed a lawsuit against the state and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in 2008, the class members were clearly defined as children who were in the custody of OKDHS based upon allegations of abuse or neglect.
Attorneys representing OKDHS filed a Motion to Quash and a request for a protective order in response to Children’s Rights’ filing.
“Children’s Rights is attempting to exploit a tragedy just to benefit their lawsuit,” said Sheree Powell, OKDHS spokeswoman. “In the process, they are criticizing OKDHS for making improvements to our Child Welfare system because they know those improvements hurt their case.
We have been safely reducing the number of children in foster care by reuniting them with their families, or when that is not safely possible, we have pushed to speed up the adoption process to ensure those children can have permanent homes,” said Powell.
“We are allocating more resources to providing preventive services and to developing safety plans and services for troubled homes. Foster care is an option of last resort.
These improvements are the exact things that Children’s Rights preaches around the country that child protective services agencies must do to improve themselves,” said Powell.
Children’s Rights has speculated that Oklahoma’s confirmed abuse and neglect numbers are down because OKDHS is conducting more assessments versus investigations.
“Safety of children is first and foremost in everything we do,” said Powell.
Based on the information received to the abuse hotlines, some complaint calls may not warrant a full investigation which is why an assessment may be conducted. During assessments, workers always have the option to refer cases for investigation. Anytime workers see signs of abuse or neglect, regardless of whether it is during an assessment or investigation, action is taken.
“Our assessment process can involve setting up a family meeting where we bring in other family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. to help protect the child,” said Powell. “What really makes a difference in the safety of children is getting more people involved in watching over and caring for children.”
Oklahoma has safely reduced the number of children in state custody. Two indicators that substantiate this statement are the rates of repeat maltreatment of children and the rates of rentry into the system.
In 2007, Oklahoma had a high number of 12,222 children in care. The repeat maltreatment rate of children in 2007 was 9.4 percent and the rentry of children into care was 5.3 percent. Fast forward to 2010, 7,970 children are in care, the repeat maltreatment rate has dropped to 5.9 percent and the rate of rentry is 5.4 percent.
“When you compare those numbers combined, it is a clear indication that the reduction of children in care was done safely,” said Powell.
Children’s Rights’ has alleged that OKDHS is “screening out” too many calls to the abuse hotline.
According to the 2009 Child Maltreatment Report, produced by the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 54.2 percent of calls to Oklahoma’s abuse hotline were screened out.
“It is important to note that 34 percent of the calls were screened out where no action was deemed necessary because the information given by the caller did not meet statutory definitions of abuse or neglect, said Powell.
Another 20 percent of calls to the hotline were screened out because they were duplicates, which meant we already had ongoing involvement with the family and the child,” said Powell.
All other calls to the hotline were either referred for assessments or investigations. The federal government does not differentiate screened-out calls for reporting purposes so all are combined regardless of the reason. (See page 11, Screened In-Screened Out referrals, 2009 Child Maltreatment Report).
“Oklahoma has made dramatic improvements to our system that works to protect children,” said Powell. “While no child death is acceptable, Oklahoma has reduced its child death rate from abuse and neglect nearly in half in four years.”
Oklahoma ranked even better than the national average in several other important statistical categories including the state’s verified rate of abused and neglected children — 8.3 per 1,000 children versus a national average of 10.1. This is a particularly impressive ranking considering states have different definitions of what constitutes abuse and neglect. Oklahoma has a much more inclusive definition than the majority of states, so it is more difficult for Oklahoma to achieve a low rate.
“We are always striving to make our system better and while there is always room for improvement, there are many improvements that have been made that deserve to be noted,” said Powell.
Editors Note: Statistics quoted in this release are included in the 2009 Child Maltreatment Report, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm09/cm09.pdf. (Link opens in new window)
See also OKDHS news release on Oklahoma’s rankings http://www.okdhs.org/library/news/rel/2010/12/cfsd12302010.htm.