We’re out with our latest Numbers You Need bulletin for June, tracking economic and fiscal trends in Oklahoma and the nation. While the bulletin focuses on monthly and quarterly data on jobs, inflation, work support programs, and the like, each month we present annual data on some indicator of Oklahoma’s general prosperity and well-being. This month we look at the trend in the annual number of confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in the state. The news is decidedly encouraging.
Last year’s total of 11,714 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect is the lowest this decade. The rate of child abuse and neglect cases – 13.0 per 1,000 children in the population – is the lowest since FY ’94 and is down 35 percent from the peak rate of 20.0 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect per 1,000 children in FY ’98.
While the statewide rate is important, it is worth noting wide discrepancies across counties in the rate of confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect. According to the 2007-2008 Oklahoma Kids Count Factbook put out by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, rates for the most recent three year period (FY ’04 – FY ’06) ranged from a high of 42.5 cases per 1,000 children in Coal County to a low of 5.8 per 1,000 in Kingfisher County.
There is not a clear single factor responsible for the decline in child abuse and neglect; rather, those involved in the field point to a combination of policies, practices, and economic circumstances:
- On the policy side, the state has invested heavily over the past decade in front-end prevention programs, such as the Children First Program and Healthy Start initiative, aimed at providing at-risk parents the resources and skills to avoid engaging in abusive behaviors. A newer pilot program, Safe Care, specifically targets families identified at the highest risk for abuse.
- Within DHS, Child Protective Services has been in the process of implementing a new practice model that focuses on conducting assessments, rather than investigations, of families that have been reported to them, allowing for more timely and effective interventions in at-risk situations before actual abuse occurs.
- At the same time, the state’s extended stretch of strong economic growth and low unemployment may also have contributed to the drop in abuse through FY ’08 by providing a greater measure of economic security for children and their families. DHS also points to its ongoing success in increasing child support payments to single parents and linking low-income parents to work supports such as food stamps and child care as reducing the financial and psychological stress on families.
The explanation does not seem to be any decline in the effort to report and investigate suspected abuse: as can be seen from DHS’ annual statistical report on child abuse and neglect, the number of reported cases of abuse and neglect that were investigated has remained steady at just over 60,000 in recent years.
The Legislature has taken a strong interest of late in the child welfare system, passing HB 1734 this past session, which was based on a comprehensive and largely critical audit of the system. DHS was appropriated $1.15 million this year to begin implementing some of the key recommendations from the audit, including establishing a statewide telephone hotline and creating a Medical Passport program.
Hopefully these reforms will complement and reinforce the existing efforts that seem to be making real and long-awaited progress in tackling one of Oklahoma’s gravest problems. However, with the downturn in the economy and parents losing jobs and income, the financial strain on families may once again lead to a spike in abuse. This is all the more reason not to get too comfortable with these numbers, but to be on the lookout for those in your community who may need some extra support in these challenging times. Those who are interested in becoming involved in child abuse prevention efforts should contact the Oklahoma State Department of Health at (405) 271-7611 or through their website. A variety of opportunities exist ranging from the simple to more involved commitments.