Monday, March 28, 2011

Speaker Kris Steele: Reforming DHS to Protect Children in State Custody

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.


  1. As a Licensed Professional Counselor and someone who has worked with children in DHS custody, I would be glad to help on this issue.

  2. I think that requiring background checks is a great idea, but I also think there needs to be more done than that. This is coming from the viewpoint of a 15 year old biological child in a foster home. I have seen many different foster children, situations, and bad choices that have ruined children's lives. I believe that it should be very hard for birthparents to get their children back. If they aren't willing to work hard enough to get their chilren back, then obviously the children deserve better. I think that the birthparents should have one year to get their act together. During that one year, they should have frequent random drug tests, be required to get and keep a job and house of their own, get their driver's license and insurance, and show that they are faithfully paying for utilities. After that one year, if they have done all these things well and proven that they have changed and are able to adequetely care for their child, I am all for reunification. But typically this is not the case. If, after that one year, they have not completed these requirements and passed all of their random drug tests, their rights should be terminated and the children should be adopted. Here in Oklahoma, it is so hard to have your child taken into custody. You have to almost kill them for DHS to do anything, and sometimes when you do almost kill them, they still aren't taken away. Even doing drugs while you're pregnant, causing your baby to be born premature and with drugs in their system isn't enough. Being high constantly and having no food in the home isn't enough. Living with a drug dealer isn't enough. These are all things I have seen where DHS does nothing because the child isn't in "immediate danger." (They may be in danger the next day though, it just depends on what day it is and how high the birthparents are!) So, in my opinion, if you do something bad enough to get your child taken away, you will probably never change. But things need to be more strict for the birthparents. Right now, everything is about the birthparents and nothing is about the children. That HAS to change. Children who are reunified with their birthparents are very likely to be taken into custody again within the next 5 years, and by then, they are usually too damaged to be saved. Children who are reunified are also more likely to live in poverty, experience academic problems such as truancy, engage in delinquent acts, become teenage parents, develop problems with substance abuse, and even have their own children taken into custody, which starts the cycle all over again.

  3. No one could explain reunification better than Madison just stated. When will children get the right to have a loving, happy home. I have had experience with trying to adopt a foster child who was born into this world addicted and cared for her since birth but she was jerked from our home and given back to her "biological mother" because it was in the child's best interest. She is now 6 years old and in foster care again for the who knows how many times because her mother beat her and recorded it on video!!!! She had a chance to grow up in a family that would love her and never ever put her in harms way but because DHS thought she needed her "mother" she now is paying the price. I have no idea where she is!!! I have prayed for her safety every nite of her life and am very frustrated that no one even cares. She is one of thousands of little children that deserve a good, safe and loving life. We need to reform DHS and the laws to protect our most valuable assets.
    Cathy J.
    Norman, Ok