March 2, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – “For the Children” Weekly Column
Contact: Joe Dorman, CEO – Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy
Telephone: (405) 833-1117
For the Children: A Weekly Column by Joe Dorman, CEO – OICA
If We Forget the Hard Lessons of the Past, We Risk Repeating Them
The Legislature has completed committee work on bills in the house of origin. The only bills left alive for those filed this year are the ones approved by committees and some legislation carried over from last year.
Traditionally, about 60% of bills filed don’t make it out of committees. The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy is grateful that several issues on our legislative priority list cleared that first hurdle; others we support did not. Over the coming weeks, I will write about our priorities that are still alive at the State Capitol.
This week I want to discuss an idea of particular concern. The push to consolidate certain state agencies as a supposed cost-savings measure is troubling to those of us who fight for children. We encourage lawmakers to proceed with caution; Oklahoma has a dangerous history here.
A perfect example of an agency that grew too big is the Department of Human Services (DHS) from 40 years ago. The infamous “Terry D.” lawsuit, in which it was proven children in the state’s custody were neglected, abused, and in some cases raped, by those charged with their care and rehabilitation, is what forced the agency to be broken apart. This tragedy happened in part because the agency was too big to properly monitor remote facilities and the vast duties of multiple departments.
An exposé by Gannett Media called “Oklahoma’s Shame” and a lawsuit filed by Steven Novick of Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma on behalf of seven plaintiffs forced the needed changes through the legal system. This case led to OICA’s creation, as well as breaking up DHS’s juvenile responsibilities.
It is no exaggeration to say this could happen again. Not a single member of the Legislature was in office when the “Terry D.” case ended in the 1990s. Each generation of government is only as good as those you elect to oversee government and the employees who are hired to maintain those departments. If we forget the hard lessons of the past, we risk repeating them. In the case of abuse and neglect of children, we who fight for them every day simply will not allow that sad history to repeat itself.
We also have heard the call by state leaders to increase whistleblowing provisions as a way to enforce correct actions by state employees. This is dependent upon the protection of the identity of the employee who is informing on others and the guarantee that person will not receive punishment for reporting wrongful actions.
Far too many good people who depend on their jobs could be afraid to lose those jobs if they speak up should the protections be too weak; that was the case with employees who witnessed the mistreatment of children decades before. Whatever form the whistleblower policy takes, we will demand that it has ironclad assurance of protection for those who point out wrongdoing.
Consolidation to save costs may be pennywise, but if there is another failure because an agency has grown too big, such a move may be dollar dumb for taxpayers. The lives and the safety of thousands of Oklahomans could be at risk, along with millions of taxpayer dollars to correct those mistakes.
This week’s child statistic, sponsored by Derrick Ott: “From 2012 to 2017, substantiated child abuse cases increased by 155%, as reported by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.”