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DHS Faces Questions In Aftermath Of Foster Care Deaths
July 1, 2008
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Days after two Oklahoma foster children died in separate incidents and in the face of a lawsuit filed against the state agency, a Department of Human Services spokesman said Tuesday that accidents and deaths involving children are inevitable.
"Children will die. Whether they're in foster care or whether they're in their own relatives' care, children will die. Accidents will happen, period," said DHS spokesman George Johnson.
SkyDawn Word, 2, drowned at a foster home in Chickasha on Sunday, one of two foster care deaths this weekend. In Ardmore, 19-month-old Ray Palmer died when a car backed over him.
Meanwhile, DHS faces a lawsuit from a Tulsa family that claims foster parent William Hunter Jr. inappropriately touched his foster son.
When asked whether DHS would update agency procedures to ensure these types of accidents and deaths don't happen again, Johnson said he did not think so, noting that he believes these types of accidents and deaths are inevitable.
But to Melissa Word, her daughter's drowning was no accident.
"To me, I think it was (neglect), a lack of supervision," Word said. "If the child would have been watched, it wouldn't have happened."
Johnson said the primary societal problem involving foster children has less to do with care once in a foster home and more with how to keep kids out of foster care altogether.
"Our bigger question right now in our society is, 'Why can't parents be better with their kids so they don't have to come into foster care in the first place?'" he said.
Johnson said DHS is doing the best it can with what the law will allow them to do.
"We have the staff that the law and the Legislature has allowed us to have and has funded us to have," he said.
Johnson said a small staff is to blame for some of the agency's problems such as its inability to check up on foster families every 30 days as state law requires.
"When I say they're supposed to be out every 30 days or so, there's a little lenience in that because sometimes you just can't get to everybody just right now," he said.
When asked why the agency wasn't able to meet that requirement, Johnson said it came down to simple math.
"(We have) 11,500 children, 1,000 people doing the work of the entire child welfare system in the state. You do the math," Johnson said.
The state Legislature recently ordered a 6-month-long investigation into DHS, an inquiry Johnson said his agency would comply with because it was ordered to do so. That investigation gets under way in the next couple of weeks.
Investigators will talk to DHS employees, foster parents and foster children. After the inquiries, information will be delievered to the state.
"The only thing we can do everyday is come to work and follow the laws and policies of this state. That's the only thing we can do," Johnson said.