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For The Children Weekly Column

Foster Child Felonies

April 11, 2022

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – “For the Children” Weekly Column

Contact: Joe Dorman, CEO – Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy

Telephone: (405) 833-1117

Email: jdorman@oica.org

OKLAHOMA CITY – The plight of children across our state often leaves me frustrated and searching for solutions. I am not alone, as many state leaders focus on solutions to children’s issues.

The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy’s mission is to look at current and proposed policies and provide suggestions for improving systems based upon a data-centric approach. This is the foundation of our advocacy engagement.

Frustration can sometimes lead to ideas that might sound good, but which can make matters worse. One such idea this legislative session, borne of understandable frustration, would devastate some foster children. The proposal would allow felony charges against foster children who commit simple assault. This might sound like a deterrent, but a deeper dive suggests it is not a realistic long-term solution.

The definition for assault under Oklahoma law is the attempt or threat to commit bodily injury through force or violence. Assault is not just committing bodily harm; assault can occur when one feels threatened. Aggravated assault is more in line with bodily harm, which is the root of this issue.

Children removed from homes due to criminal acts by adults are often directed to locations that cannot sufficiently provide the mental care needed. These youth are understandably irrational with what they have endured. When a child is overly aggressive due to mental health issues, these facilities often cannot provide the supervision and care needed, such as strict curfews, intensive mental health counseling, and precautions that prevent harm to persons or property. Oklahoma has a serious shortage of facilities to care for children with severe aggressive behavior.

Unquestionably, adult workers deserve to feel safe. They know kids under their care are suffering; no worker should be placed in harm’s way while dealing with youth who require far more than their facility is equipped to manage.

Some think strict punishment is a deterrent, but those with severe emotional trauma often do not act in a premeditated manner. Likewise, those with violent behavior due to mental illnesses should not be shuffled from hospitals when insurance runs out to facilities ill-equipped to deal with malicious behavior.

 Legislative leaders wisely allocated funding for increased youth mental health programs following the pandemic. Instead of creating felony charges for these children, we ask lawmakers to build upon their progress by funding adequate facilities and care for children under the supervision of the Department of Human Services and the Office of Juvenile Affairs. 

We adults must provide hope and opportunity for recovery to these youth. They are living the worst experiences of their lives, having lost their families and their homes. It is simply wrong for many of these children, not acting in their right minds, to be slapped with felony convictions.

We know the justice system is harsher to children with child welfare backgrounds, confirmed by a 2019 report in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. These children have greater chances of arrest, harsher and longer sentences for lesser offenses, and fewer chances for diversion. The bill in question would only perpetuate this sad reality.

Not only will we see lives destroyed, we taxpayers get to pick up the tab when treatment would have been less costly and more effective.

Please reach out to your legislators and ask them to fund treatment rather than place felonies on youth, except in those rare cases where a criminal charge is necessary to protect others.

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