From 2016 to 2017, the Department of Human Services (DHS) in Oklahoma received 79,310 reports from concerned family members and the public, about suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. Of those reports, almost half (35,556) of the allegations met the legal definitions of abuse and neglect, following DHS assessment and investigation.
The statistics help us realize that every year, tens of thousands of children in Oklahoma are identified in at-risk situations, where they have been victimized by parental abuse or neglect. The average household has two or more children, and when we consider that as many as 70,000 children required legal intervention, it brings the problem of systemic child abuse in Oklahoma into important focus.
What should you do if you witness, or observe symptoms or evidence of child abuse and neglect? What kind of legal action can you take, and how quickly should you act to protect the safety of at-risk children? In this article, we’ll discuss some of the key points family members and the public need to know to extend more than compassion, but protection for children who are abused.
How Does Oklahoma Legislation Define Child Neglect?
Oklahoma statutes define child abuse as harm or threatened harm to a child’s health, safety or welfare by a person responsible for the child. This includes non-accidental physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, or neglect (Title 10, Section 7102).
· Neglect is the failure or omission to provide a child adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, protection, supervision, or special care made necessary by the physical or mental condition of the child. Abandonment is also a type of neglect.
· Physical abuse is non-accidental physical injury to a child under the age of 18.
· Sexual abuse, which also includes sexual exploitation, means any sexual activity or propositioning between an adult and a child for the purpose of sexually stimulating the adult, the child, or others. This can include rape, sodomy, incest, lewd or indecent acts or proposals, prostitution, obscene photography, and deliberate exposure to adult pornography or adult sex acts.
· Emotional abuse is an injury to a child’s psychological growth and development resulting from incessant rejecting, criticizing, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, corrupting, and denying emotional responsiveness.
Source: Web 2019 https://www.ok.gov/
What Are the Observable Symptoms and Signs of Neglect?
Children can endure child abuse and neglect and show significant or observable signs of the abuse, but in some cases these signs can also be subtle or missed. This is one of the reasons why children can remain in abusive and dangerous situations for years. The child is often coerced into hiding physical evidence, or threatened and fear their safety, and avoid reporting their victimization to other family members or trusted people in authority in their lives.
Here are some of signs that may indicate the child is in a situation of abuse:
- Weight gain or weight loss.
- Social withdrawal.
- Aggressive or unnatural violent behavior toward adults or other children, including bullying.
- Low mood, sadness or depression.
- Anxiety or fear-based apprehension and behaviors that are inconsistent with previous personality or social traits.
- Expression of anxiety related behaviors or self-harm, including nail biting, sleep disorders, bedwetting, cutting or other self-inflicted injuries or behaviors.
- Physical signs such as bruises, burns, cuts, and expression of pain not related to a health condition or explicable accidental injury.
- Persistent stomach upset not related to a physical illness.
- Pronounced sexual awareness inconsistent with the age and maturity of the child.
- Reluctance to be alone with a certain adult or family member.
- Abuse or violence toward animals.
- Drug or alcohol abuse.
It is important to note that children who are experiencing systemic abuse or neglect, are the least likely to report the issue. This is a complex psychological reaction to their abuse, and children often have an expectation that the situation will improve. Or, they have been coached to believe that they are somehow to blame for the treatment they are receiving from their parent or custodial guardian.
The love of a child for their parent is so strong, that the fear of being removed from the home is often greater than the experience of abuse for some children. And abusers masterfully use that fear to keep the child silent, implying that if they report the incident, the child will be put in foster care and never see their family again. Or, that the report will cause the parent to go to jail and separate the family.
Because these psychological factors are so strong, it reinforces our societal obligation to be observant about the children around us. The cry for help can easily be missed and misconstrued as a child acting out, or a ‘bad kid’ who likes to get into trouble. It can be in fact, a child in danger who uses aggression to vent the physical and emotional pain they are enduring.
Are Legal Guardians the Only People Who Can Report Child Abuse or Neglect?
Some people think it is only family members who have innate knowledge of the abuse, who are able to intervene to get help for victimized children. All citizens in Oklahoma have a legal duty to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. There are a few misconceptions about the obligation that we all share to protect children.
One of the biggest problems that delay an intervention for an at-risk child, is the assumption that someone else will notice and take action. Whether that person is a teacher, or perhaps a coach or someone else in a position of authority and guidance for the child.
One fear that causes people to hesitate to report suspected (or apparent) cases of child abuse, is interfering the ‘private matters’ of a family. Some people can also be concerned about possible legal, or personal complications that can arise from reporting child abuse. If they family finds out that it was you that reported it, will you be harassed or threatened? Will they take civil legal action against you, as a result of reporting your concerns?
When you have legitimate reasons to suspect, or you have observed known symptoms of child abuse and neglect, it is important that you do not wait before advocating for the well-being and safety of the child, by seeking legal advice (if you are a family member), and reporting the situation to law enforcement.
How to Report Child Abuse in the State of Oklahoma
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) provides resources and services for Child Protective Services (CPS). Child Protective Services are the first step to protect the safety of children and are the frontline in starting interventions to work with the family, and in some cases, remove children temporarily or permanently from parental care. Sometimes this can involve placing the child with a court approved family member as a temporary, or long-term guardian, when the child’s safety in the parental home cannot be guaranteed.
To report a case of child abuse or neglect in Oklahoma, call the DHS hotline at: 1-800-522-3511. It is a free service that is available 24 hours a day, and seven days a week.
According to the Department of Human Services (DHS) the following results after investigation has been completed, are reported under these five criteria:
• A finding of substantiated means the Department has determined, after an investigation of a report of child abuse or neglect and based upon some credible evidence, that child abuse or neglect has occurred.
• A finding of unsubstantiated means the Department has determined, after an investigation of a report of child abuse or neglect, that insufficient evidence exists to fully determine whether child abuse or neglect has occurred.
• A finding of ruled out means a report in which a child protective services specialist has determined, after an investigation of a report of child abuse or neglect, that no child abuse or neglect has occurred.
• A finding of failure to cooperate means the person responsible for the child’s health, safety or welfare (PRFC) does not cooperate in an assessment or investigation by refusing to allow access to the child victim for observation and an interview.
• A finding of reasonable parental discipline means that the person responsible for a child used ordinary force and age-appropriate reasonable discipline. This finding results in expungement of record of the referral and assessment or investigation.
Source: Web 2019 okdhs.org
If you are a family member or non-custodial parent, and you would like legal advice about your ability to petition the court for temporary or permanent custody of an at-risk minor, contact our family law experts at Compton Law, in Yukon. We will provide a free telephone or in-person consultation to inform you of your legal options, and steps you can take to help your child or family member.