Meaningful change still needed to address mounting problems in the child welfare and youth justice systems (2024 Legislative Wrap-up)

Oklahoma is not known for being a safe and hospitable place for children. Oklahoma, for the second year in a row, ranks 46th nationally in overall child well-being, with only Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico ranking lower. Lawmakers sought to address this problem in the 2024 session by passing budget increases to vital services like the child welfare and youth justice systems. However, Oklahoma’s structural budget deficit has meant that state agencies and service providers in the child welfare systems have continually been forced to do more with less year after year.

The structural budget deficit has meant that problems like long waiting lists for services, high incidence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) for Oklahoma children, and a lack of human rights for children in the justice system will still persist because a single-year budget increase is not enough to solve these problems. Lawmakers this session had recommendations to act upon from the Child Welfare Task Force, most of which took a backseat this session. Oklahoma youth and families will go another year without meaningful changes to the systems that are supposed to serve them.

Lawmakers have an obligation to young people to increase their opportunities for success, not suppress their ability to thrive. 

This session, lawmakers approved a budget that saw a dramatic increase in funding for the Office of Juvenile Affairs and the Department of Human Services for Fiscal Year 2025, which starts on July 1, 2024. Funding is an important step in solving problems like increasing service availability, keeping children in their homes and communities instead of out-of-state custody, and addressing long waitlists for services that parents and families have been experiencing. This increase in funding, matched with the implementation of the Family Representation and Advocacy Program that was passed in 2023, should do a great deal to address issues in getting families the services they need. 

However, there are many problems that will still persist without lawmakers’ action. Many of the recommendations put forth by the Child Welfare Task Force were not directly addressed by legislation in the 2024 session. An opportunity to create a single point of entry for support services like TANF, WIC, Medicaid and SNAP lapsed. When families qualify for one support service, they are likely to qualify for others. Establishing a single point of entry, or a universal application, for support services like these means that families will not have to fill out multiple applications in order to receive services. While a reform like this would require an investment of time and money from the Department of Human Services to modernize their technology to handle these new applications for services, it would be a worthwhile investment in Oklahomans who need them. 

Lawmakers made small steps toward providing more support for youth experiencing homelessness, but other punitive measures passed this session impede this progress

Lawmakers took steps this session to address the crisis of youth facing homelessness. Nationally, estimates suggest that the number of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness increased by 15 percent from 2022 to 2023. This session, lawmakers sought to address this problem with passage of House Bill 3231 by Rep. Mark Lawson, which will provide a state ID at no cost to youth age 14-21 who are certified by the state to be homeless. This measure was supported by service providers across the state who serve the youth homeless population. Some estimates suggest that this will assist over 400 young people under 18 every year receive their ID so they can apply for a job, stable housing, or benefits like SNAP or TANF

However, other measures passed this session will be counterproductive in helping young people experiencing homelessness. Senate Bill 1854, which was signed into law this session, punishes people experiencing homelessness by issuing fines or even jail time for camping on state-owned lands. This measure is particularly problematic as it relates to former foster youth. The most recent Tulsa Point in Time (PIT) count, which is an annual count of individuals and families experiencing homelessness in the US, found that over 1 in 5 respondents had previously been in the foster care system. This is, unfortunately, the norm for former foster youth, as one study  found that 31-46 percent of foster youth experience homelessness by age 26. In future sessions, lawmakers need to consider meaningful reforms that will adequately address homelessness by considering solutions that work, like providing safe and accessible housing to those who need it, transitional housing for youth aging out of foster care, or increasing the available, affordable housing stock. 

Oklahoma has many opportunities to make the justice system safer and more fair for children, but lawmakers did not seize their opportunity to do so this session.

Lawmakers have an obligation to children in state custody to provide a safe and enriching environment and protect them from harm. One of the most glaring issues facing Oklahoma children experiencing legal system involvement is the lack of available resources to properly address mental health, substance abuse, or delinquency issues. There are also a myriad of human rights’ issues that children face in the justice system. While this year’s budget increase may help address the resource deficit, a recently filed lawsuit in Tulsa County alleging abuse and neglect in a detention facility highlights the need to address and prevent problems in the youth justice system. 

Lawmakers could have taken steps this session to protect children who face legal system involvement, including establishing a minimum age of adjudication, providing essential documents to youth when they leave state custody, or banning the use of juvenile life without parole sentencing. All of these reforms were included in bills filed this session, but none made it past the chamber of origin. 

The one non-budget reform related to the youth justice system that made it through the legislature this session would have created more barriers for youth in the legal system, but it was vetoed by Governor Stitt. This bill, SB 423, would have added an offense — eluding a peace officer — to the Youthful Offender Act. In this case, a young person would have been considered a youthful offender if, while evading a peace officer, they caused bodily injury to another person. This offense is often accompanied by other serious offenses, and adding this additional offense to the Youthful Offender Act would have been unnecessary. Youth are already held accountable through the youth justice system, and evasion is less serious in nature than other crimes in the Youthful Offender Act, such as murder or manslaughter. 

In the interim, lawmakers learned about the many problems facing the youth justice system. Punitive measures like SB 423 make the problem of massive over-representation of Black youth in the legal system worse. Lawmakers have a duty to consider non-punitive reforms to the youth justice system to address these problems, not create even more punitive measures as they sought to do this session.

Despite increases in agency budgets, lawmakers will have to do even more next year to make Oklahoma a safe and hospitable place for children and families.

Increasing department budgets alone without meaningful reforms to address the problems youth and families face will not fix the mounting problems of the youth justice and child welfare systems. Lawmakers cannot continue their legacy of inaction in creating more opportunities for youth to succeed. Youth and families experiencing the child welfare and youth justice systems deserve the same opportunities to thrive as all Oklahoman children and deserve more action from legislators.


Jill Mencke joined OK Policy as the Youth Justice Policy Analyst in September 2022. Jill earned her B.A. in Political Science and Economics from the University of Oklahoma in May 2020. After graduation, she worked as a family preservation specialist, providing intervention services to families experiencing issues in the home. She saw the impact intervention programs and support services can have, and is dedicated to creating more avenues for prevention and support for Oklahoma families and their youth. Jill enjoys attending local concerts, hosting movie nights, and her Siamese cat, Buddy. She was born and raised in Oklahoma and resides in Norman.