Last Thursday the House Human Services committee held a public hearing as part of an interim study looking into procedures by which the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) licenses child care centers.
In all of the committee meetings I have attended as a member, I have never been part of one that produced the level of public interest as this one has. Our committee room was filled to capacity as interested parties sought to view the hearing.
The interest was due to the proposal of reforms to the system by which child care centers are licensed. These reforms are in response to a tragic incident which occurred in May at a Tulsa area home day care center.
Known as the "Noah's Ark Child Care Home," the day care center received its license to operate in January 2003. Policy dictates that DHS perform three site inspections at day care centers each year. From 2003-2007, these inspections documented a number of care and safety deficiencies at the child care home. During this time, a total of eight referrals alleging various forms of physical abuse or neglect were received by DHS. The referrals were serious enough that DHS requested the center to "voluntarily" cease operations on four different occasions while the referrals were investigated. Each time the owner of the home refused the request.
In November of 2005, not only was the alleged inappropriate behavior substantiated, but the person committing the offense was caught trying to cover it up. In April of 2007, a police investigator noted eight one-half inch slash marks on the upper back of one of the children. The owner of the day care center admitted to committing the abuse. Despite this admission, DHS made the decision not to seek the closure of the center until charges were filed by the police. This decision would have tragic consequences, as one month later, a two-year-old child died after the owner of the day care center bound his hands and covered his mouth with masking tap. Incredibly, on May 17th, after this incident, the owner of the day care again refused to "voluntarily" close her day care center. DHS closed the home day care on May 18th.
In reaction to this case, DHS is proposing a series of reforms. One of these proposed reforms would streamline the process by which emergency closure orders can be issued. Another reform would require day care centers to allow immediate access to parents of recent DHS findings concerning the center in question. Some of this information will also be placed online for parents to access.
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth (OCCY) Office of Juvenile System Oversight, the watchdog agency for DHS, submitted to our committee a detailed report containing details of the failures of DHS and recommendations for changes. The report and work of OCCY confirms the need for the important role OCCY plays in providing an oversight role of DHS. OCCY's role was recently strengthened as a result of reforms following the Kelsey Smith-Briggs case. I feel their role needs to continue to be strengthened in the future.
I also believe that DHS should develop a policy of revoking state subsidized day care payments to those who are committing acts of abuse. One of the most frustrating facts of this case is the number of the children in this center that appear to have been subsidized by the taxpayers. This made the center little more than an extension of state government, meaning that you and I were providing the income for this person to commit these acts. I do not want my money to be used to provide an income for child abusers. Had state payments been cut off when the first case of inappropriate conduct was documented in 2005, the center may have closed. As of now, DHS shows very little inclination to address the issue of cutting off taxpayer funding for dangerous day care centers.
I remain committed to advocating for Human Services reform, but I need your help. Please continue to call me with your experiences and suggestions about Human Services issues. I can be reached at 557-7350 or online at www.HouseDistrict31.com.