Children are Oklahoma’s most precious resources and our state must do everything in its power to keep them safe and secure. Statistics indicate more than 8,300 Oklahoma children are currently in custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. This means more than 8,000 children are no longer living in their home.
Our state is accountable for ensuring that children in foster care receive necessary services and adequate safe guards. Many of these youth face a host of challenging issues such as separation from family and emotional trauma. Unfortunately, if successful reunification does not occur, these children, when returned home, will again fall victim to abuse, neglect, and in some horrific cases…. death.
Such was the case of 7-year-old Aja Johnson. Nearly a year ago Aja was found dead in a wooded area in rural Norman, OK. Here stepfather, Lester Hobbs, a documented violent offender, tragically murdered this innocent 7-year-old girl. Aja’s death prompted the House of Representatives to conduct an interim study and draft legislation designed to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. It was determined that a simple background check would have revealed the violent past of Hobbs, who was, at one time, living in the home of Aja Johnson. Yet background checks are not currently required prior to reunification of a child with his or her biological parent.
House Bill 2136 seeks to change the law by requiring the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) to conduct criminal background checks on every adult living in a home before a foster child is reunited with a parent. All factors should be considered before children in vulnerable, at-risk situations, are placed in a home. Background checks are a common sense step to ensure a safe reunification for every family.
In complex child protection cases, like that of Aja Johnson, numerous state agencies and service providers are involved, yet there is often a lack of clear communication and timely exchange of information. House Bill 2136 would address this dilemma by requiring relevant information is shared with every entity influencing the placement of a child. It is critical that the attorneys, judges, and advocates have timely access to accurate documentation about family dynamics and service plan goals before determining the child’s placement. A high level of coordination will prevent misunderstanding and reduce undesirable outcomes.
In addition, HB 2136 directs DHS to conduct an actual investigation when at least three complaints of alleged neglect or abuse are reported. Current law allows DHS to determine whether to screen-out, refer, or investigate a complaint when a report is filed alleging abuse or neglect.
In the last seven months, 1,613 Oklahoma children have been reunified with their families. The goal of HB 2136 is to ensure children are living in a stable and secure environment.
The House of Representatives is committed to ensuring the safety of Oklahoma children, and by enacting commonsense safeguards, our state can fulfill its primary obligation of protecting our most vulnerable citizens.