Thursday, February 14, 2008

Remembering Terry D: Can Yet Another Lawsuit Against DHS Protect Children in the State's Custody?

Children's Rights, a New York based national watchdog organization that advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children in the U.S., has initiated a federal lawsuit on behalf of children in Oklahoma's child welfare system. Their suit alleges the Oklahoma Department of Human Services fails to protect children in its care. While the suit has been brought on behalf of nine Oklahoma children ranging in age from 4 months to 16 years who have allegedly been psychologically and physically abused while in the custody of DHS, the plaintiffs are seeking class action status so they can represent the 10,000 children in the system.

Click here to read today's Tulsa World article and The Oklahoman article.

Will it once again take court intervention to improve how Oklahoma treats children placed in the custody of the State? Does anyone remember the "Terry D" case that challenged how Oklahoma treated emotionally disturbed and dependent children including "incorrigibles" and runaways (today we call them "children in need of treatment")?

The State of Okahoma took "Terry D" away from his mentally ill mother and alcoholic father when he was 9. After several unsuccessful placements in foster homes, he was declared a "dependent and neglected child" and was placed in a state reform school. When he was 15, a class action suit was brought by three civil liberty groups on behalf of "Terry D" and 7 other juveniles. The suit against DHS and its chief administrator, Lloyd E. Rader, charged that over 900 juveniles were being held in and abused at state "training schools." These emotionally disturbed children had never committed a crime yet were being housed with juvenile delinquents.

In 1982, the Oklahoma Legislature passed HB 1468 that brought about sweeping reforms. Five state training schools were closed and the Legislature created the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth (OCCY) to conduct unannounced, independent monitoring of children and youth held in the state system. (In the 1980's while working at OSU's Policy Sciences Group, I was privileged to help OCCY design inspection survey instruments and analyze the data OCCY staff collected during their unannounced visits to children's facilities. I also worked on a study for Governor Henry Bellman on how "children in need of treatment" were being treated by Oklahoma's court system.)

So, yes - I am old enough to remember the Terry D lawsuit and the stories that came out regarding abuse and neglect of children held in state institutions. I still have a copy of "Hearings before the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 97th Congress, 2nd Session on Allegations of Serious Abuses and Misconduct in the Detention of Juveniles in Institutions Maintained in the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Feb 11, May 26 and 27, 1982. Serial No. J-97-95." It was not Oklahoma's finest hour.

One other great institution came out of this period. In response to the Terry D case, the Gannett Foundation provided a $50,000 grant to establish what became the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. You can read remarks by OICA's excellent Executive Director Anne Roberts on the history of child advocacy in Oklahoma here.

The "Terry D" case was about children held in state institutions and I want to believe that DHS (with OCCY watching over them) does a much better job with those children today. This new lawsuit is about children in Oklahoma's foster care system. Children's Rights notes in their suit that in the last 5 years, Oklahoma has twice been rated the worst program in the nation in terms of children being abused while in foster care. How will Oklahoma fare this time through the courts? Watch and see. And watch the Oklahoma Legislature, too. Will our elected officials vote against additional funding for our state's foster care and adoption programs while voting for more money for roads and bridges? Money talks. Watch how we allocate our state funds and you'll understand Oklahoma's true priorities.

(And if all of this shames and/or upsets you, show where your own personal priorities are by making a financial contribution to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy!)

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