Tara Grigson was an OK Policy summer intern. She is a psychology and Spanish major at the University of Tulsa and previously worked as a Mission Impact Intern at YWCA Tulsa.
Nearly 11,000 Oklahoma children have been removed from their families and placed in foster care. This fact has many implications for child development. Removing children from their families, no matter how necessary, can be traumatic. But when abuse and neglect can be prevented while still allowing children to stay with their families, children tend to have better health and better life outcomes. Alternative responses that help low-risk families to keep their children are linked to lower rates of future abuse or neglect.
In 2015, 11.4 out of every 1,000 Oklahoma kids were in foster care — a rate that is second highest in the nation, behind only West Virginia, and more than twice the national average. Oklahoma also ranks high for sending very young children to foster care — in 2014, 41 percent of Oklahoma kids in foster care were age 1 to 5, also the second highest percentage in the nation. That’s troubling, because healthy development during these years often sets the course for future development. When a child is removed from their family so young, they may experience disordered attachment and serious challenges to their cognitive, social, physical, and emotional development.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) is obligated to investigate allegations of child abuse or neglect, and if the findings are substantiated and the child is actively in danger, they are obligated to remove the child. Once a child has been removed, that child maybe be placed in a group home, with other family members, or with a foster family. Like every state, Oklahoma attempts to assure the well-being of children, but determining whether they are better off in foster care or remaining in their homes can be like choosing whether or not to get on the highway during rush hour — maybe it will be better, maybe it will be worse, but either way it won’t be easy.
Alternative Responses to Child Abuse and Neglect
OKDHS can decide to use an alternative response to removal from the home. These alternatives are a better option in cases where the child is not in immediate physical danger, or where education of the parents or increased access to resources like food, electricity, and health care could alleviate the abuse or neglect. According to the Parent Child Center of Tulsa, a social worker can sometimes resolve child abuse or neglect by referring the family to a therapist, food sources, or other resources. The social worker could also establish a Family Centered Services Plan, in which social workers and parents collaborate to develop a plan for keeping the child safe.
“Determining whether children are better off in foster care or remaining in their homes can be like choosing whether or not to get on the highway during rush hour — maybe it will be better, maybe it will be worse, but either way it won’t be easy.”
Research by the U.S. Office of Human Services Policy found that in Oklahoma, alternative responses are used in 29 percent of cases of substantiated child abuse or neglect — the lowest rate out of six states in the study. By the comparison, the average rate across multiple states of abuse and neglect reports being met with an alternative response was 45 percent. The study also found that as the rate of alternative responses increases in Oklahoma, the number of substantiated re-reports within six months (in which a child is abused again after intervention by DHS) decreases. This suggests that not only do alternative responses keep children safe in the short-term, they have the potential to prevent long-lasting change.
The re-entry rate for children who are given alternative responses is roughly 3.75 percent within six months. For children who are reunited with their families after having been removed, the re-report rate is around 4.3 percent within 12 months. There is not a huge difference between these numbers — however, alternative responses avoid the harmful effects of removal.
Some counties allow different responses among siblings within families, so a young sibling might be removed while a teenager remains in home. This is associated with a higher percent use of alternative response. Children who can safely remain with their families deserve to do so. Children who experience abuse or neglect are already dealt a bad hand, and removing them from their families when there is no imminent danger is further traumatizing.
Alternatives to taking a child out of the home and into foster care can decrease trauma and lead to better health outcomes. These children are the future of Oklahoma, and they deserve to grow up in the healthiest and happiest way possible.