BY GINNIE GRAHAM - Tulsa World | Published: June 25, 2012 0
Twenty-one Oklahomans get together for eight hours once a month to understand why children are dying from abuse and neglect in the state.
Each has a different perspective, experience and expertise in the development, education, health and safety of children.
Each has been frustrated by public apathy, inaction and missteps by agencies and officials in child abuse and neglect cases.
But it’s different now, they say, pointing to pending reforms in the state’s child-welfare system and involvement by elected and appointed leaders.
“I’ve seen a change in culture. People are listening, and we have to take advantage of that now,” said Kathryn Brewer, assistant district attorney in Canadian County.
Brewer, who has 12 years’ experience in deprivation and delinquency cases, is part of the special review committee created as a subcommittee of the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services in October.
Members either sought to be on the committee or were asked by Commissioner Wes Lane, a former Oklahoma County district attorney who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Mary Fallin in September.
The group was formed to examine the deaths of children who had some involvement with the Department of Human Services since 2010. The purpose is to find common threads for strengthening policies and practices.
“We are not a judge or jury looking at indictments of these cases,” Lane said. “We are looking at patterns of conduct, not aberrations, but for patterns of (DHS) policies and issues involved.”
The committee will make a report with policy recommendations to the commission, which oversees DHS, in the fall.
“What none of us wants to be is a blue-ribbon task force or panel wasting our time on things no one will pay attention to,” Lane said. “We want to see if there are common-sense things these citizens can bring to the table for possible implementation into policy. We want to present some effective, real policy-change opportunities.”
The panel is the model lawmakers used when crafting DHS governance-reform measures, which include asking voters in November to abolish the oversight commission.
If State Question 765 passes, a director hired by the governor with Senate approval would lead DHS, and four citizen advisory panels would be created to make recommendations to the director.
Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, led a House work group that examined DHS programs and led to the reform measures. He said the size and scope of the agency is beyond what a nine-member volunteer commission can effectively oversee.
“Our House working group, and a lot of other people, realized you could never create a governing commission that is a manageable size that could do for the whole department what Wes’ special review committee was doing in the area of child welfare,” Nelson said. “So we finally decided we needed to recommend some rather significant changes.”
Nelson said the committee is effective because it provides a forum for diverse experts to express opinions and discuss trends.
He noted that the members are volunteers and do not have decision-making power.
“That means the committee does not exercise authority over the department operations, and their (the members’) interests are much more narrow and focused,” Nelson said. “They were specifically selected because their expertise or perspective was needed for this specific task.”
The committee members started with a training session in January to understand the goals and perimeters of their work. They received presentations on the basic data regarding Oklahoma’s child abuse and neglect cases.
Members then reviewed a single case to determine how best to approach the analysis. The committee is beginning to tackle the 129 identified cases that could fit into its review.
Ira Schlezinger, a retired executive from Integris Health, said he is participating to understand the complexities of the problem and help identify best practices to prevent child deaths.
“Part of the dynamic, education and reward has been the opportunity for the exchange of very different points of view,” Schlezinger said. “There is an incredible diversity here.”
For some members, it has created stronger ties to other agencies.
“Many of us know each other, but we had not met each other,” said psychologist Barbara Bonner. “It’s been an interesting study in group dynamics.”
Sandra Park, Oklahoma City Public Schools deputy superintendent, said changes in enrollment practices are being considered in ways to help students in fragile families.
She and fellow committee member Oklahoma City police Lt. Paco Balderrama have started talking about coordinating efforts among their agencies’ programs for children.
After the first round of case analysis, Oklahoma County District Judge Roger Stuart wrote a note to suggest a different framework.
“In addition to asking what DHS could have done differently, we ask, ‘What could the rest of the family, the community, including other public and private agencies have done to prevent the situation?’” Stuart said. “It is a call to the rest of government and the public for help in protecting our children.”
The committee posts its meetings and keeps minutes but closes the doors to the public when confidential records from the cases are being reviewed. These documents are protected by federal and state laws.
Read more: http://newsok.com/panel-studies-dhs-child-abuse-deaths/article/3687419#ixzz1zr3rsK8d