*WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SENSITIVE MATERIAL SURROUNDING CHILD ABUSE, INJURY, VULGAR LANGUAGE, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING: THE IDENTITY OF SOME PERSONS HAVE BEEN CHANGED
Across the state, the Oklahoma child welfare system is tearing families apart, in a way that could be described as aiding and abetting human trafficking. There are many forms of human trafficking, but one consistent aspect is the abuse of the vulnerable and something to gain for the perpetrators. Families in crisis, particularly those with minor children are potentially in harm’s way of becoming the intended target and losing their children, for the profit and benefit of others. Many were in abusive environments, some are naive, and others admit to being very addicted to one thing or another for a brief period of time. Substantial resources were not offered to those families in a way that could build back their now broken families. I’m not sure it all started intentionally. However people slipped; whether it be the parents, courts, attorneys, non-profits, or just our society in general. Maybe the situations were simply taken for granted? Maybe there was money to gain? Maybe it was negligence or malpractice? Whatever the causal factor, the slippery slope of abusing the most vulnerable of our state by way of intentional separation, misrepresenting the indigent, restricting resources, and further harming of Oklahoma children, was and remains an avoidable tragedy. The most vulnerable of our communities are being taken advantage of, their children were illegally taken, and coerced into needless and life-changing “adoptions” all the time, there was a plan in place.
Some officials seem willfully ignorant, which is a breeding ground for child trafficking, as evidenced in a string of Payne County cases covered in this story, in which Kevin Etherington and a second District Attorney have been accused of once unfathomable crimes against children. Many of the families we interviewed for previous stories had made complaints of some kind involving their children to the local DA, and police, only to be disregarded or even retaliated against.
Men and women reached out and gave their personal accounts of how they were domestic abuse victims, and some not, who were housed in local abuse shelters and thought they had protection. As it would turn out, they didn’t. The support, in an Orwellian way, suggested over and over that God would want them to give up their child for adoption. The workers then separated and isolated the families. Some of these custodial parents in the end lied to the Judge! They felt alone, pressured through various means to agree to these coerced terms. These are the types of situations that stood in the way of healing families of one Oklahoma county alone. Some became suicidal, and some gave up their legal fights, just wanting the nightmare to end.
The State of Oklahoma and those in the child welfare industry would argue that these cases were 100% about child safety and the parents and children wanting a better future; not hypervigilance. However, protections for Oklahoma children haven’t always been a high priority. The outcome of the last 20 years of targeted improvement plans hasn’t panned out, here or in other test case states. Since the 1960’s and the introduction of Title 4D funding, to 2018 Title 4E funding, the intent, the money, has been “trickled down” with barely a drop of love left for the actual family with the possibility of losing their children to forced adoption as 2018 stats show that Foster Family Home (Non-Relative) were still at 53% or 64,067 children.
Title IV-E reimbursement for preventive services were meant to be provided to families with children at risk of entering foster care. In SFY 2018, child welfare agencies reported spending $8.2 billion in Title IV-E funds. With no end in sight, spending increases by about 10% per decade. Little of that money made it to the families who eventually had their rights terminated by the state and their children adopted to those outside their families.
In October of 2022, Governor Kevin Stitt told the audience, and the world at CPAC that “Because in Oklahoma we know that God gave kids to Parents, not the government. We know that when you fund students not systems when you put parents in charge, not unions, that’s when children succeed.” and that “Government controlled systems have failed us.” We couldn’t agree more.
“Parenting Twice As Hard For Half A Chance” follows a sampling of family law cases in which we interact with the families and others that claim their rights were violated, and their children were harmed, in spite of an abundance of resources. Currently, families that desperately want to stay together are being blocked from doing so at every legal turn, as they press forward. Beyond the stats, the planning, the funding, the bureaucracy, and certainly within the prayers of each family lay the rest of the story.
The Pinnacle Plan For Improvement
The Oklahoma Post documented many families (42) in one region alone that claim to have lived through nightmarish situations at the hands of OKDHS fifteen (15) years after the original eight (8) families brought their cases to federal court. The damage to our children is still occurring.
In 2008, Oklahoma started to see a significant increase in the number of children entering foster care and an increase in the physical and mental harm to children that had been taken into the OKDHS labyrinth. According to state data from 2006, approximately 10,000 children were in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS). This is according to the complaint that formed The Pinnacle Plan.
At the peak of our Nation’s meth and opioid epidemic, children were being stacked into group shelters and there were not enough foster homes to temporarily hold the children until the family could get healthy once again. Eventually, the State, the attorneys, and the social service system were set to receive funds from the opioid industry to offset the stresses on the State’s social services system, in its fight against the plagues of addiction. There was very little in the way of mental health and additional treatment centers for Oklahomans at the time.
Hovering over Oklahoma was a black cloud of human tragedy that demanded a federal response. The child welfare system was being held accountable. The State, acting as a protector was often the culprit in extreme harm; for example from 2000 to 2011, 129 children died in DHS custody.
To ensure improvements, the non-profit group Children’s Rights, along with Oklahoma law firms Fredric Dowart Lawyers, Seymour & Graham LLP, Day, Edwards, Propester & Christensen PC, and international firm Kaye Scholer, filed a federal class action lawsuit in 2008, D.G. v. Yarbrough, challenging the State’s treatment of children in foster care. A case against the Governor of Oklahoma and Commissioner of DHS on behalf of the named plaintiffs and more than 10,000 children of Oklahoma who had been removed from their homes.
The case was heard before Chief U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Oklahoma out of Tulsa. The complaint alleged violations of the constitutional rights of the children in the State’s care as they were routinely placing children in unsafe, unsupervised, and unstable living situations, where they were frequently subjected to further maltreatment.
In July 2012, a settlement agreement was reached in which the Pinnacle Plan would be used as an official government program to justify funding, for children this time. The approved plan laid out “a five-year roadmap of significant commitments.” The plan committed OKDHS to meet measurable improvements in five major areas: foster care safety, resource homes, worker contacts, shelter use, and worker caseload. Because the State did not meet the terms of the settlement agreement within five years, the end date has been continually extended. The State is in a federal monitoring status to ensure Oklahoma children get a fair chance at a normal childhood. The Pinnacle Plan was intended to guide the OKDHS as it works to make targeted improvements in the way it cares for children in foster care. It was a playbook to bring about reforms in Oklahoma and has been used previously in other states as a framework for change. It is not a “plan” Oklahoma came up with themselves.
In 2018, a federal law was established with new restrictions on placing children in foster care into a group or institutional settings, also known as “congregate care,” with exceptions for highly-specialized congregate care providers.
As a result, Oklahoma needed badly to recruit more foster families, kin, and adoptive parents to reduce its current reliance on congregate care in order to receive funding. Oklahoma will be able to receive federal funding for certain evidence-based prevention services for parents and/or children aimed at keeping more children safely with their biological parents and out of foster care.
As part of the Bipartisan Budget Act (HR. 1892), which was signed into law in February 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) was enacted to turn the focus of the current child welfare system toward keeping children safely with their families to avoid the trauma that results when children are placed in out-of-home care. The Act also sought to curtail the use of congregate or group care for children and instead places a new emphasis on family foster homes. The law authorized new title IV-E funding for time-limited prevention services for mental health, substance abuse, and in-home parent skill-based programs for children or youth who are candidates for foster care, pregnant or parenting youth in foster care, and the parents or kin caregivers of those children and youth. Title IV-E agencies like OKDHS that elect to provide the title IV-E prevention program must submit a five-year plan for their title IV-E prevention program to the Children’s Bureau for review and approval (ACYF-CB-PI-18-09).
The Family First Act offered Oklahoma an opportunity to address two reasons that many children are placed in foster care by:
expanding substance use treatment for parents who could face Child Protective Services (CPS) removals of their children, and
increasing support for teens in foster care who are pregnant or parenting their own children.
Those funds are not being spent towards the families but towards the industry.
Follow The Money
Proving the old adage true, that money is the root of all evil; the Oklahoma and Federal financial resources meant to support healthy family units are being funneled into an expedited adoption system for the benefit of the Adoption industry. The state is also motivated to expedite adoptions, as OKDHS must soon meet settled upon target “numbers”; indicating improvements in the state foster care system.
The more children the agency took into foster care, the more money it would need to spend. That was before Title V-E. The Legislature has kept funds going into foster care, including upping payments to foster parents. DHS foster care is at full staff.
To address the large increase of families entering the OKDHS system and to simultaneously come into federal compliance, CWS, through the resources provided within the Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration Program awarded in 2014, was tasked with enhancing the safety and prevention-related service array available for children at higher risk of entering foster care to prevent family separation and trauma to the children and their parents. These included DACA Children.
The goal of the Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration Program was to increase the safety and well-being of children who would otherwise be placed in foster care, thereby allowing them to remain safely in their homes, not with the expected outcome of them being placed outside of their biological family homes.
With funding in the hundreds of millions of dollars redirected internally to Child Welfare Services, OKDHS added more than 800 new caseworkers and supervisors to the child welfare workforce. Those employees are being paid 23 percent more due to funding for raises. It was estimated that OKDHS and its contract partners recruited and approved thousands of new foster families who received an average 36 percent increase in foster care reimbursements. OKDHS insists it has invested in more home-based services with the goal of keeping children safe with their families and avoiding removals, helping to correct problems in the home so that families can be reunited with their children faster. Yet the number of children in foster care remains relatively unchanged from 2012 to 2022, hovering around 8,000 children in the system at any given time. Next of kin placement of the children was only at 36% in 2015 and has only risen to around 50% in 2022. We also found a small group of hidden child adoption cases never make the DHS radar.
To give you an idea of the unbelievable bureaucracy that pads the paychecks of all the family court industry, OKDHS is the state agency designated to administer Title IV-B and Title IV-E programs, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), and the Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood as well as other federal safety net programs. OKDHS, is the umbrella agency administering programs and services that are currently provided statewide that include Child Welfare Services (CWS), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid (SoonerCare), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Aging Services (AS), Developmental Disabilities Services (DDS), Child Care Services (CCS), and Child Support Services (CSS). CWS is the OKDHS division responsible for administering the State’s child welfare services (CWS) and operates under the direction of CWS Director Deborah Shropshire, M.D. The CWS Director reports directly to the OKDHS Director, who reports directly to the Governor’s Office. I’ll stop there, but it should give you an idea of the billions of dollars that flow through the Oklahoma DHS system.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, and Administration on Children, Youth and Families FY 2019 data showed that reunification with parents was still only 55% of the government-sanctioned case plans in the United States DHS system.
We know how the money gets into the OKDHS system, but it’s more important to understand with as much fervor how a family’s entry into the CWS system begins. Referrals come through the Neglect Hotline (Hotline). The referrals are screened and a disposition is made as to the CPS response. CWS’ purpose is to identify, treat, and prevent child abuse and neglect (CA/N), ensuring reasonable efforts are made to maintain and protect the child in the child’s own home. When this is not feasible, CWS provides a placement that meets the child’s needs. The infrastructure for how children and families are served in the CWS system includes services administered through targeted case management (TCM) and receipt of Medicaid compensatable TCM services that assist a child’s access to needed medical, educational, social, and other services which are delivered by external partners.
The money improved for the Foster Industry, but the outcomes for families remain unchanged. According to the child welfare information gateway, “Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 (FFPSA) was enacted to turn the focus of the current child welfare system toward keeping children safely with their families to avoid the trauma that results when children are placed in out-of-home care. To increase the number of children who can remain safely at home with their families, the law provides families with greater access to mental health services, substance use treatment, and/or improved parenting skills.”
Most Oklahomans are taxpayers with strong family values. The majority would be outraged to think that the State of Oklahoma, through federally matched funds of the non-custodial parents, would be allocating so much funding to destroy families. The federal government is making funds available under the guidelines of the FFPSA and other sources.
Even when the Pinnacle Plan goals are reached, that won’t truly be the end. The parents are left with a whole new set of laws that were created by the Oklahoma legislature and Oklahoma Supreme Court that restrict their rights and do not offer protections against the avalanche of an oppressive and well-funded OKDHS.
We should be looking closely at how Oklahoma is achieving these goals. Federal funding is tied to it. Who is verifying that we are correctly following the guidelines to qualify for these payments? Are the funds different for therapeutic, private, and traditional? How are our Judges paid? What are the other money funnels for state and federal funding that are not making it to the families, at the root, before these tragedies occur?
Other states are working to improve their child welfare system. Michigan’s progress in complying with their agreement was being overseen by the same court-appointed monitors as Oklahoma; Kevin Ryan and Eileen Crummy, of Public Catalyst (commonly referred to as the Michigan Monitoring Team, or MMT), who monitor and consult on Michigan’s efforts to reform. The Oklahoma Post found that other states are also under the monitoring of Public Catalyst, such as Mississippi.
In August 2006, Children’s Rights, Inc., filed a class action lawsuit in federal court seeking to reform Michigan’s foster care system. Similar to Oklahoma, the complaint alleged that the State of Michigan had violated the constitutional and federal laws by failing to move children quickly into safe, stable, permanent homes; provide children with adequate medical, dental, and mental health services; provide safe and stable foster homes, and prepare children who age out of the foster care system. The complaint also alleged that Michigan’s child welfare system was poorly managed, underfunded, and insufficiently staffed which put children at risk of harm. Children were actually getting “lost”.
In 2008 then Governor Granholm signed a settlement agreement which was approved in federal court on October 24, 2008 as a court-enforceable Consent Decree. The Oklahoma lawsuit, headed by the same nonprofit was filed shortly after.
Following four monitoring periods of the Consent Decree, the new administration of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder took office and the newly appointed department management began months of negotiations with Children’s Rights to refine and update the original Consent Decree. In 2011 a Modified Settlement Agreement and Court Order (MSA) was approved by the District Court. Oklahoma’s settlement was signed In 2012.
Michigan’s Governor Ryan said when speaking in 2014 of a new child data welfare sharing system, “the public in Michigan will have its first very substantive and comprehensive view into a wide range of outcomes for children,”.
Under the Oklahoma settlement agreement, a team of three “independent” experts, known as the “co-neutrals,” were granted formal authority to approve the OKDHS Pinnacle Plan and monitor its implementation. The Monitors are also responsible to conduct verification activities in other states on an ongoing basis and report to the federal court on progress and compliance with the requirements of the Implementation, Sustainability and Exit Plan (ISEP).
Kathleen G. Noonan is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Law. She was the founding Co-Director of PolicyLab, a cross-disciplinary research and policy center; a lobbyist group. Before joining CHOP, Kathleen spent seven years as Manager with Casey Strategic Consulting, the consulting arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, lobbying to produce significant public system reforms for the benefit of “vulnerable children, families, and communities.”
Kevin Ryan is also a court-appointed co-neutral overseer of The Pinnacle Plan. Kevin also serves by appointment of the federal court as a monitor of Michigan’s child welfare consent decree. A highly educated person. “a former Harvard Wasserstein Fellow and Skadden Fellow, he received his undergraduate degree from Catholic University; a law degree from Georgetown; and a master in law from NYU.”
Ryan served as New Jersey’s “first Child Advocate” and as the state’s first commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, launching a reform of child welfare and juvenile justice services. During his tenure, the State set successive state records in adoptions, foster family recruitment and safety for children in placement. Kevin’s priority is adoption.
Eileen Crummy is a Partner with Ryan in Public Catalyst. Crummy currently serves as a monitor of Michigan’s federal child welfare consent decree. Prior, Crummy spent her career in public child welfare in New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) beginning as a child protective services worker before rising through the ranks to become the agency’s Director. She also served as the Acting Commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families. As DYFS Director, Eileen took credit for the creation of New Jersey’s case practice model, a systemic orientation of policy “practice away from compliance towards outcomes, with an emphasis on family engagement“. Which family, the biological family or the adoptive family?
The “non-profit” New York based Children’s Rights, led by attorney Marcia Lowry, which filed the Oklahoma lawsuit in 2008 stated, “There are many areas that have not hit the target, but we are glad they have made progress.” She is now with the nonprofit called A Better Childhood.
As of August 15, 2014, while acting as Children’s Rights executive director Lowry and local counsel became solely responsible for monitoring and enforcing the reform efforts in Oklahoma. In 2016, the ISEP was approved by the District Court In Michigan.
In February 2014, there were 28total substantiations of maltreatment by resource caregivers, up from 16 in January 2014. The problem is getting worse.
Despite DHS’ promise to stop housing kids between the ages of 2 and 12 in shelters by June 30, 2014, shelter use for children ages 2-5 increased in early 2014 – from 19 children spending 205 nights in shelters in February to 34 children spending 319 nights in shelters in March. Shelter use also increased for kids ages 6-12, with these children spending a total of 3,769 nights in shelters in March, compared to 3,284 in February.
Between July 2013 and March 2014, the first 9 months of state FY 2014, DHS opened 539 new family foster homes. The co‑neutrals set a target of 1,197 new family foster homes by the end of FY 2014. Thus, DHS recruited only approximately 45 percent of the new homes needed.
This was not the intent of reforming any state foster care system. Ideally, the goal of foster care is to heal biological families so they can parent their children into adulthood. This is by law and by OKDHS policy. Still on average 225,000 children annually will be erased from their biological families through U.S. adoption services creating generational trauma throughout the country. We are finding more and more that DHS placement cases have been turned into permanent adoption cases, with complaints of civil rights violations being ignored along the way.
How Family Preservation Is Really Being Harmed
Before we delve too far into the mind-numbing statistics that overshadow the heartbreak and destruction of human trafficking, we want the reader to hear the real stories from real people about real heartbreak and the destruction of family integrity. With that said, it is important to know that adoption can be a great thing when extreme circumstances prevent reunification. Those stories should be the exception, not the rule. We tell the stories of a few of the families who have reached out, but we have heard from many more who have had similar experiences as those highlighted in this story.
The Second Circuit has repeatedly found that “children have a parallel constitutionally protected liberty interest in not being dislocated from the emotional attachments that derive from the intimacy of daily family association.” Southerland v. City of New York, 680 F.3d 127, 142 (2d Cir. 2011), as amended (May 14, 2012) (quoting Kia P. v. McIntyre, 235 F.3d 749, 759 (2d Cir. 2000))
“Research documenting the trauma caused by the separation of children from parents is extensive and conclusive. A tool book for lawyers was created by the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation. It can be found on the American Bar Association website. It in part provides a summary of the extensive research detailing the grave consequences that result when a child is separated from his or her parent(s).”
Clinical research shows that: Children who are removed are “overwhelmed with feelings of abandonment, rejection, worthlessness, guilt, and helplessness.” (Folman, 1998). Separation floods stress hormones throughout the child’s brain and body, leading to:
permanent architectural changes in the brain, including lower IQs. (Wan 2018)
depression, more suicide attempts, and more problems with alcohol abuse and gambling. (Wan 2018; Goydarzi 2018; Eck 2018; Carnes 2018).
Children generally suffer worse outcomes when removed than if they had been allowed to remain in marginal homes. In studies of similarly situated children (those with social services involvement facing possible removal), children who were, in fact, removed (compared to those remaining at home):
have two to three times higher delinquency rates. (Ryan & Testa 2005; Doyle 2007; Doyle 2008; Lowenstein 2018)
have higher teen birth rates. (Doyle 2007)
have lower earnings as adults. (Doyle 2007)
are two to three times more likely to enter the criminal justice system as adults. (Doyle 2008)
are twice as likely to have learning disabilities and developmental delays. (Lowenstein 2018) 5 As of January 2020 EAST171419531.2
are six times more likely to have behavioral problems. (Lowenstein 2018)
as adults, are more likely to have substance-related disorders, psychotic or bipolar disorders, and depression and anxiety disorders. (Côté et al. 2018)
as adults, have arrest rates two to three times higher, and are more likely to have criminal convictions for violent offenses. (Doyle 2008; Côté et al. 2018)
As these resources indicate, the short- and long-term effects on the child’s mental and physical well-being are often devastating. These effects include severe anxiety, depression, PTSD, and toxic stress. Separation can also result in delays in cognitive development. Further, the child may suffer physical harm that is manifested as a result of stress-induced releases of hormones that impact brain and organ function.
In the case of adoption, there is an additional loss. Adoption changes a child’s birth certificate. Oklahoma denies adult adoptees the unrestricted right to obtain their own original birth certificate. Only ten states allow an adult adoptee to access their original birth certificate.
Regardless of the reason, almost all mental health professionals characterize terminating a parent’s rights to a child as being the most drastic decision the State attempts to make, yet the Judges do so at an alarming rate with little or no public scrutiny of the legal violations that often take place under the guise of child protection.
“No story sits by itself. Sometimes stories meet at corners and sometimes they cover one another completely, like stones beneath the river.” – Mitch Albom
– Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet In Heaven
If measuring the performance set by the Pinnacle Plan, Oklahoma DHS still has severe problems. Whether or not the activities of the State of Oklahoma family courts and social services have changed depends on who you ask and when.
Punishing Reporters Of Abuse
The termination of a parent’s rights has been characterized as the family-law equivalent of the death penalty. “If these were criminal procedures, and you said we don’t really have enough evidence to sustain a conviction, but we’re going to handle this injustice ourselves, people would be horrified,” Mark F. Testa, a professor emeritus of social work at the University of North Carolina and an influential scholar of kinship care, told the New York Times in a December 2021 interview. He went on to say, “If you can’t convince a court that someone is guilty, you shouldn’t resort to vigilante justice.” Such is the case in Oklahoma with parental termination cases in both DHS and outside of DHS involvement.
In several alleged child abuse cases we researched, such as the Dougherty case, the Moyer case, and more that were reported through the Stillwater Police Department severe retaliation is alleged, up to losing certain rights to their children. For the mothers involved in rights termination or adoption cases, the advocates that the women had placed their trust in, such as Wings Of Hope, The Saville Center, and eventually Lions Hope Adoption agency turned out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.
On December 20, 2022 at an informal meeting to discuss finalizing a permanent plan to return Jasmine to her mother, Carol Swart, area OKDHS employee Michelle Burdict, was questioned about what Carol had to do to get her daughter home safely. According to Swart, Burdict stated, “when we are sure Carol won’t throw her baby in the closet and feed her gummies when she can’t be handled.” There has never been such a claim or action against Swart. In fact, she has reported to the District Attorney’s office that her daughter has been harmed in numerous ways at her current foster home. The foster home is the mother’s former employer, a restaurant/bar combo, an establishment that is also a large contributor to the adoption agency itching to help. Swart has reported to The Oklahoma Post that she feels defeated and targeted by all involved, including Payne County Judge Steven Kistler who has told her in the past she needs to change her attitude.
Many of the stories gathered for this story resemble oppression, vigilante justice, and criminal coercion. Many of the alleged participants are the same people, seen in cases over and over again. For example court-appointed attorney Virginia Banks. She single-handedly has been involved in the coerced or forced adoption of at least six (6) children over the past five (5) years.
2.1 We will be loyal and committed to our client’s lawful objectives, but will not permit our loyalty to interfere with giving the client objective and independent advice.
2.2 We will advise our client against pursuing litigation (or any other course of action) that does not have merit.
2.3 We will endeavor to achieve our client’s lawful and meritorious objectives expeditiously and as efficiently as possible.
2.4 We will continually engage in legal education and recognize our limitations of knowledge and experience.
2.5 We will reserve the right to determine whether to grant accommodations to opposing counsel in all matters that do not adversely affect a client’s lawful objectives.
2.6 We will advise our client, if necessary, that the client has no right to demand that we engage in abusive or offensive conduct and that we will not engage in such conduct.
2.7 We understand, and will impress upon our client, that reasonable people can disagree without being disagreeable; and that effective representation does not require, and in fact is impaired by, conduct which objectively can be characterized as uncivil, rude, abrasive, abusive, vulgar, antagonistic, obstructive or obnoxious. Ill feelings between clients will not dictate or influence a lawyer’s attitude, demeanor, behavior or conduct.
2.8 We will always look for opportunities to de-escalate a controversy and bring the parties together.
2.9 We will readily stipulate to undisputed facts in order to avoid needless costs, delay, inconvenience, and strife.
2.10 We will consider whether the client’s interests can be adequately served and the controversy more expeditiously and economically resolved by arbitration, mediation or some other form of alternative dispute resolution, or by expedited trial; and we will raise the issue of settlement and alternative dispute resolution as soon as a case can be evaluated and meaningful compromise negotiations can be undertaken.
2.11 When involved in an alternative dispute resolution process, we will participate in good faith, and will not use the process for the purpose of delay or for any other improper purpose.
2.12 We will not falsely hold out the possibility of settlement as a means to adjourn discovery or delay trial.
Complaints have been made, but not one action has been taken against the attorneys like Virginia Banks, who have been unethical and coercive in these tragic DHS and family court custody cases by Oklahoma Bar Association General Counsel Gina Hyndrix. It should be noted that both Jimmy Oliver and Melissa DeLacerda, former Payne County family law attorneys who have also been accused of misconduct, had positions of authority to select which complaints on judges and attorneys would be heard. Oliver, who himself had adopted one of the children we covered in this story, has left the state to practice law in Indiana and supposedly DeLacerda has retired.
Oliver and his partner were allegedly able to adopt a child directly from OKDHS. What looked to outsiders to be a joyful occasion where a needy child was placed in a forever home, the biological mother was coerced, pressured, and lied to by her attorney, DHS workers, and others, all of whom had one goal in mind, get the mother to voluntarily relinquish her parental rights.
Journey McGee, a resident of Payne County until recently, is the mother of the child adopted by Oliver and her saga began in 2017. Journey lost all three of her children to the system never to be reunited with her three girls again. Journey’s nightmare began with a false abuse allegation made by her own sister, someone who wanted Journey’s child for herself. Journey had allowed her sister to watch her year old daughter. Within hours of her daughter going to her sister’s, Journey learned her sister has contacted the police and DHS claiming Journey had physically abused her daughter. Journey said there were no marks on her daughter when she placed her daughter in her sister’s care.
Police stated that there was substantial bruising and that they would be investigating. Law enforcement took Journey to the hospital where she was reunited with her daughter. Journey was in the exam room with her daughter when the medical staff removed her diaper. Journey was shocked and sickened by what she saw. When the diaper was removed there was significant bruising, clearly showing a large handprint, one much larger than Journey’s. After the exam was concluded by hospital staff and after Journey gave law enforcement a statement, she and her daughter were taken to the Saville Center where law enforcement and Saville staff continued the investigation. Initially, DHS stated that if someone would stay with the family to monitor the home then her daughter could go home; however, every name that Journey gave, DHS would reject. Journey’s sister also had previous DHS involvement and Journey was alleging that these injuries occurred in the home of her sister and boyfriend so DHS would not let the child go with the sister either. An Emergency DHS worker arrived and said they were placing the girl in emergency foster care until a more permanent home was available and they would be in contact with Journey for a home inspection.
According to Journey the home was clean and she had two pets, there was only a single pet stain on the carpet from a cat. The DHS worker stated that the home was in poor condition with cigarette butts and animal feces everywhere, so Journey’s daughter continued in the foster care system. Journey tried to get her daughter placed with family, something that is supposed to be a priority when DHS has removed a child from the home. Journey’s daughter’s paternal grandmother tried to be a placement. She was already an approved foster care provider in Kansas, yet OKDHS denied her as a placement, claiming she didn’t have a relationship with the young child. Journey says her daughter did have a relationship with her grandmother. A close family friend, also approved as a foster parent in Kansas, was also denied by OKDHS.
Unfortunately, the stress of losing her daughter caused Journey to turn to drugs to self-medicate. Despite turning to drugs for a period of time, Journey says she did everything DHS told her to do, complying with the service plan and fighting to get her daughter back. While trying to get her daughter back and working the DHS plan, Journey discovered she was pregnant with her second daughter. Journey got clean and gave birth to her second daughter. She was also in the final steps of permanently reuniting with her first daughter.
Journey was doing well and had stable housing provided by Mission of Hope. On the eve of having her oldest daughter permanently placed back with her and her second daughter, one week away from having the DHS case closed, a DHS worker accused Journey of using drugs, which she denied. After the allegation, Journey did relapse and asked for help. Instead of supporting Journey, DHS removed both of her daughters.
Three months later Journey discovered she was pregnant with her third daughter. She was terrified of DHS as they had already taken her other two daughters and did everything to prevent reunification, so she hid her pregnancy. While pregnant, Journey was kicked out of the apartment, being accused of smoking cannabis; Journey says a hair follicle test came back negative, yet Mission of Hope stated she was no longer a fit for the program and evicted her from her housing while pregnant.
Three months later she was told that she was being charged with theft because she had taken the furniture that had been donated to her by Mission of Hope. Journey stated she offered to give the furniture back, but Mision of Hope refused. Virginia Banks was appointed by the court to be her criminal defense attorney. Journey spent a month in Payne County Jail and while she was in jail she told the jail administrator that she was pregnant so she could be moved out of the general population. At some point, DHS got the jail records and discovered Journey was pregnant. Journey had not disclosed this to anyone other than jail staff.
Once Journey was released from jail, she made the decision to go to Oklahoma City to give birth to her third child, not Stillwater. DHS did not come to the hospital. Journey returned back to Stillwater to live with her child and the child’s father, Marcus. Within days of returning to her home in Stillwater with her baby and Marcus DHS showed up on the doorstep to take the new baby, claiming parental negligence. Luckily, Marcus had an attorney, Sarah Kennedy. Kennedy argued that DHS had no case and, initially, Payne County Judge Steven Kistler agreed and returned the child to Journey and Marcus. The other two children were still in DHS custody.
A few months later, Marcus and Journey got into an argument. According to Journey, Marcus had snatched the child from the crib and the baby’s head wobbled back and forth. Journey freaked out, scared the baby may have been hurt. Marcus left the home, taking their child with him to his mother’s house. Journey was extremely upset, couldn’t reach Marcus and made comments that were misunderstood. As a result, Marcus’s mother called the police. Once the police checked on Journey, she borrowed a friend’s car and drove over to Marcus’s mother’s home so she could check on her child. Marcus and Journey figured things out and returned home with their baby. The next day, Marcus answered a knock at their door and found DHS on the doorstep once again. DHS workers claimed the pair were neglecting the child and the child was starving. Marcus was the only one home at the time and put all of the blame on Journey. Journey is adamant that the child was not neglected and was not starving.
In addition to being Journey’s criminal defense attorney, Virginia Banks was also her court-appointed attorney for all of Journey’s DHS cases. She was told by Virginia that she would need to relinquish the rights to her oldest two children in order to salvage a chance at keeping the youngest child. This is an illegal act and is against Journey’s best interest. Any attorney would know that if rights were relinquished to two of her children, the law states that decision can be used against her with the termination of parental rights for other children. Journey recalls Banks saying to her, “let it happen, you have no chance, relinquishing your rights is the best choice, you are making it harder than it needs to be.” Virginia pressured her into a corner and said that by doing this she would be able to keep her youngest child. She was also told that any adoption of her oldest two daughters would be an open adoption and she would be allowed regular visits with her daughters until they were adopted. She was told that after the adoptions she would still be able to see them, get pictures and be given updates about how they were doing; however, the minute her rights were relinquished, her daughters disappeared, all contact between Journey and her daughters ended. The exact same situation played out with her youngest daughter, only Banks already knew DHS had an adoptive family selected prior to Journey and Marcus relinquishing their parental rights. In fact, Banks told Journey the family was wonderful, and would provide her daughter with more than she could ever provide her. Banks used the same coercive tactics to wear Journey down and pressure her into relinquishing her rights to her youngest daughter, despite Journey begging her to fight for her in court. On the eve of the trial date and after the promise of another open adoption, Journey and Marcus gave up and relinquished their rights under duress. This child was placed with Jimmy Olliver and his husband, the adoption being finalized in record time, four months. Journey learned that Oliver and his partner had been having visitation with her daughter long before she was pressured into relinquishing her rights. Journey has now lost all of her children, not by choice or due to any substantiated abuse, but by an agency, attorneys, and the Court taking advantage of her and forcing her to stop fighting and give up.
Neglect 86% 19,337 children (about the seating capacity of Madison Square Garden)
Exposure to domestic violence 23.4%
14% or 3,153 children were substantiated victims of ABUSE.
If all these children are taken into custody, 9,301 children are harmed by removal to prevent harm.
There is no distinction in the audit measurements between unsubstantiated and substantiated cases and children taken into custody in 2021. Take for example the Goode Family of Payne County whose saga began in 2018 (JD-2018-52, FD-2019-409, FD-2019-416). Mina Goode says she was deceived and had her children outright trafficked from her. In 2018 she was like at least half of the women in Oklahoma. She had a live-in boyfriend and no real plans to get married. She was just twenty-two (22) years old at the time her children were stolen, fresh into young motherhood as difficult as it was proving to be. Mina’s parents lived just across the border in western Kansas at the time of her first contact with OKDHS. They are in fact a “good” family.
Early one fall afternoon in 2018 Stillwater Police Department Officer Sherae LeJeune appeared at Mina’s front door with Lesly Buffington and a third unidentified OKDHS rep. After opening the door, Lejeune stated that a concerned friend called DHS and said the home smelled like pot. Eagerly, the officer searched the home for illegal drugs. The young mom, Mina, was home with her one-year-old since her boyfriend had just dropped off her oldest at Skyline Elementary. Nothing illegal was found in the home by Officer LeJeune.
Mina asked if the officer had a warrant, to which Lejeune replied, “DHS needs to come in and talk to you. We have your daughter at the school. The child stated that Allen [Mina’s boyfriend] popped her in the mouth on the way to school.” The Oklahoma Post has seen the photo and it looks like nothing more than a canker sore, but we are not experts. The boyfriend denies harming the child. Mina and the boyfriend have since parted ways for other reasons.
The school nurse at Stillwater’s Skyline Elementary, Karen Spliva [name changed to protect identity], had called DHS that morning to report that the child had a busted lip. OKDHS arrived at the school and interviewed the child without the mother or father’s knowledge. There were no bruises or indications of child abuse and no charges were ever filed. The very next day DHS and the police arrived to take emergency custody of the four-year-old and one-year-old girls before Mina could even begin to make sense of things. Mina still has not laid eyes on the police report or the DHS report.
From the time the children were taken until Mina saw them again a month had gone by. This pattern of increasing the separation time of the parents and the children continued and was reported by several families. According to federal law, children are supposed to be placed with their biological families. Mina’s parents and other family were from her nearby home state of Kansas. They had no criminal background and were willing to take care of the children until the situation could be rectified. OKDHS informed Mina that “they [DHS] would have to do their own background check and that it would take six (6) months to complete the check.”
Mina and her family tried to make arrangements for a Permanency Plan for the children to go home. There was no reason not to allow the relationship as the abuse was not validated. Mina had never been to jail or ever charged with a crime, and her only gig was that she tested posited to cannabis and didn’t have an Oklahoma Medical Cannabis card. Mina had never witnessed abuse of her child. Mina’s mom and dad moved to Stillwater to be near Mina immediately in 2018 to support the family, and it seems odd to want to isolate Mina. Mina says, “It makes it hard to see my kids uptown and not even be able to say ‘hi’ or explain any of this.”
Rather than being placed with family, the children were instead placed with the reporter of the alleged abuse, the school nurse. In early 2019 CASA and DHS employees, Dana Hatter and Christy Calvert allegedly pressured Mina into staying at Stillwater’s Wings Of Hope which is run by several City of Stillwater police officers. Mina was not allowed to have her children with her while at Wings of Hope. Mina at the time felt comfortable opening up to Wings of Hope Counselors about the behaviors of the boyfriend towards her, but not towards the children. Mina accepted the counseling help, according to her plan with DHS, Mina was only supposed to go to counseling for six (6) weeks but ended up participating for months. After being at Wings Of Hope for thirty (30) days, she was given the ultimatum to have everything prepared to meet the requirements of her permanency plan. This meant renewing her driver’s license, getting a home in her name that wasn’t a rental, removing her parents from her surroundings, and completing parenting classes, a place where she was not allowed to have her children with her- Mina says, “How am I supposed to improve my parenting skills when I can’t even have my children with me?”, or they were going to terminate her rights.
Mina went to the “visitation” with her daughters that was allowed once per month. During that time from 2018 until 2019 it wasn’t uncommon for the foster parents or DHS to cancel visits, breaking the family’s souls. Mina claims that DHS would cancel visits if she did not cooperate with their abhorrent demands. For example, DHS didn’t like Mina around her own parents; Hatter and Calvert would try to convince Mina that her parents were toxic. The Grandparents are healthy, great people.
It was during this time that her attorney and caseworker started asking if Mina would be interested in just adopting out her children. She was being manipulated with God and coerced at the lowest time of her life. Mina said she was told “‘God would want you to do this, you weren’t a good mom’, and ‘she couldn’t hold a job.'” Mina also said “they [her attorney and caseworker] would say these things over and over and eventually I started believing the bullshit.” Mina was just twenty-two (22) years old and for the first time in a few years wasn’t pregnant or caring for a newborn.
Mina and her family come from modest means. She was unable to retain a private attorney and tried to go through legal aid. At the time, LASO was run by ADA Debborah Knipp and a friend of the court, Jimmy Oliver, who sat on the approval board for Legal Aid. LASO insisted to Mina that they didn’t have any attorneys available. Mina had to take a court-appointed attorney named Mozella Beth Irwin Smith and then later the infamous Virginia Banks. Stephen Kistler was the only judge presiding over Mina’s cases.
During the process little was explained to Mina and her family. Mina’s court-appointed attorney Virginia Banks has been unresponsive. The adoptions of Mina’s children were finalized in 2021, with Mina having relinquished her parental rights under duress. The adoption agency was the Lion’s Meadows Of Hope. The school nurse is now the adoptive mother. Banks didn’t fight to stop the adoption and, in fact, encouraged the act. Mina never received extra financial or spiritual help, TANF, or any funds to help her such as childcare, extra medical, or housing assistance. Nothing to help her prevent the loss of her children.
The children’s first and last names were changed quickly after the adoption. Mina is now twenty-six (26) years old, married, and has changed her name to Mina Whittman. Her new family and her parents still reside in Stillwater hoping to be reunited with the children who were tragically stolen away from Mina. One of Mina’s daughters, Vickey’s father’s rights were terminated. Her other daughter, Shady’s father is deceased.
Due Diligence, Good Faith Ignored For Easy Kinship Placements
In 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law, providing federal funds for mental health care and substance-use treatment to prevent foster care placements.
The law allows departments to use this assistance when children are living in “kinship placements,” but it does not specify that caseworkers need a court’s approval to make such arrangements.
The law does not include a legal standard for a change in custody, explicit protections against coercion, a mandate to try to return children to their homes or requirements to ensure that children are safe.
The Rich [name change to protect privacy] family’s story is an example of a Payne County family who has suffered a multigenerational family intervention that began in 2019. Two minor girls were placed in a home, in a different county, with a woman who was not related to them and who practiced a controversial religion called The Jehovah’s Witness. The organization is well known for isolating vulnerable members of society allegedly going so far as making female members give an extra house and car key to the area leader. It has been reported that one state cult leader had the keys to hundreds of Edmond area women’s homes and cars. The adoptive mom, who the family didn’t have any previous relations, has been given full control of visitation and has been allowed to indoctrinate the girls into a religion that is not in their natural family culture thanks to rulings made by Payne County Judge Steven Kistler. The Rich family believes that The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult and a danger to society by way of elder and child abuse.
The natural, biological mother is a former foster kid, who only has a 9th-grade education, has never obtained a drivers license, and is lacking in life skills. The natural, biological father is a decorated Iraq War Veteran with diagnosed PTSD and addiction issues. He was coerced into signing a relinquishment of his parental rights in exchange for an open adoption agreement with a woman who practices a religion that does not salute the flag or honor military service. Neither DHS nor CASA ever informed anyone that this woman was a member of the Jehovah’s Witness.
When the family asked for permanent family placement as required by the Family First Act, they were repeatedly ignored. When Judge Kistler finally approved the father receiving visitation, a misdemeanor charge was filed by the Payne County DA’s office and used to deny any type of placement with the father. The charge was filed and dismissed in the same month.
The two girls have had an APPROVED FAMILY placement since June of 2020, but have been denied their right to biological family interaction. The family had asked the Payne County Courts more than twenty (20) times for at least visitation. Finally, six (6) months after the biological family made their request for placement, Judge Kistler had to order DHS to allow a visit.
The visits were supervised and went well according to witnesses. Two different family counselors recommended to the court that the children be placed with their family citing an obvious familial bond. Regardless of the recommendation, and against codified law, Judge Kistler denied the biological family placement. The biological family attempted to appeal, but could not afford the transcript costs. The State does not accrue any costs, in fact is reimbursed for all costs and rewarded for out of home placements of children.
The attorney for the foster parent claimed to be joined in his brief by the attorney representing the girls, which was not true. The attorney for the girls claimed to not know how to address the appeal and told sources of the Oklahoma Post that he had not been involved in an appeal in more than 20 years. He has also never even met the girls, his clients.
The ADA, Brenda Knipp, who filed the charge against the father, had previously represented the mom when she was a juvenile. The biological family asked the judge to reconsider his placement decision. He denied the request and ordered the family to pay the attorney fees for the foster mom because they filed a frivolous motion.
The ADA, Brenda Knipp, was representing the State when she also argued vehemently AGAINST family placement in the Campbell case (JD-2021-04). According to Tanya, In 2014 Campbell’s first grandchild was born to her twenty-two-year-old daughter, who is now twenty-eight. Three other grandchildren followed for a total of four grandchildren who have now been removed from her daughter’s care, three of who are living with their biological fathers. According to Tanya, one of Tanya’s grandchildren, a boy born in 2016, has disabilities and is not in a family placement. He been diagnosed as having Asperger’s, a form of autism, and is now traumatized by not having contact with his family. OKDHS became involved when Tanya’s disabled grandson was living in Payne county and had escaped out the front door of his mother’s home. Tanya wants her grandchild to stay with her blood family, but the grandchild has been placed with an outside foster mother, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
The fight deepened in 2021 when an OKDHS worker was alleged to have falsified reports against Tanya. Over fourteen (14) times DHS has shown up on Tanya’s door, harassing her family, yet Tanya continues to fight.
There have been complaints filed with OKDHS supervisors, the Commission on Children and Youth, the Office of Client Advocacy, and the Oklahoma Bar Association by many families to no avail.
Another grandparent fighting for her family is Sue Smith [identity protected for privacy], a Payne County resident who in 2020 learned that DHS planned to take custody of her grandson. Sue and her son, the baby’s father, had contacted DHS and asked for placement with them. Unlike most other families in this situation, Sue had the means to hire a lawyer. It cost $5,000 to show the court that DHS had ignored the law requiring a due diligent search for kinship placement, and the pleas for DNA testing. Rather than placing the child with biological family, DHS instead placed the baby in an emergency placement before moving him to a foster-to-adopt home that wanted a newborn.
The court ordered DHS to conduct a background check and within 5 days the baby and his older brother were finally placed in the grandmother’s home. Sue took the baby for a DNA test to be compared to the father’s test which had been submitted 2 months prior.
Sue’s youngest grandson is two (2) months old and DHS has required his father, Sue’s son, to move out of the house. The sibling has difficult behavior and frequently attacks the baby. Sue does all she can to manage the behaviors and protect the baby. The sibling was evaluated by a psychiatrist and medication was recommended but the caseworker instructed Sue not to medicate the child.
According to Sue, there was talk of guardianship that would preserve parental rights and allow the family to work out their situation. DHS wanted Sue to take both children. Sue was hesitant but didn’t refuse as she believed it would allow her to keep her grandson. Unfortunately, DHS has notified her that they will be moving both boys out of her home. The reason is unknown.
It is a tragedy that in 2022 the State of Oklahoma has become the primary abuser of children. It’s no secret that Children’s rights have been trampled in Oklahoma for decades. Oklahoma has never been the beacon of civil rights in the Nation, a scary thought when coupled with the recent announcement by Governor Stitt of claiming “every square inch of Oklahoma for God”.
Our stories over the past few months have opened our eyes to the uniqueness of each case. The families all share a common storyline of ill representation, lack of knowledge, judicial allowances, and omissions from the originating cases that poison the petitions brought before a biased body of judges.
In a 2021 article in the Tulsa World, the independent co-neutrals report showed OKDHS as being good in every area at a “good faith effort,” standard. Nothing of the sampling of stories from one county alone can be classified as good faith efforts. In fact, the acts of evil are documented by the families and official court documents have been intentionally overlooked.
The State Is Helping The Wrong People
There is good that came from the initial lawsuit against the State of Oklahoma, but truthfully they are hard to find and the State is still putting its energy and resources into other areas, ignoring the importance of keeping families together. According to family advocate Kristal Kruel who was tasked with gathering information about the families involved in the lawsuit, “The biggest benefit we got out of the Pinnacle Plan in, my opinion, is capping workers’ caseloads. What the Pinnacle Plan did not do, and we are in need of, is accountability.”
Ending the use of emergency shelters, significantly increasing the number of available foster homes, providing enough resources for children experiencing trauma and, finally, finding care for foster children with developmental and behavioral disabilities were the top priorities. Yet foster industry advocates from law enforcement to nonprofit leaders fought against closing shelters against known research that showed congregate care often causes harm to children.
There was to be a redesigned continuum of care to better track children and the services needed. Policymakers can’t identify the necessary reforms without tracking cases. In addition, there was to be an increase in the types of services available. However, none of those services or systems were made available to the families torn apart. Each system was bastardized to benefit the adoption industry placements and any “good” that has come from the lawsuit is minimal, at best. None of the areas of improvement get to the root cause of the issues and events that led to the 2008 lawsuit.
According to the settlement agreement, the co-neutrals have planned to issue a final report since 2016; however, the agreement keeps getting re-upped because of the poor performance of the aforementioned.
If the report finds that Defendants (OKDHS) made good faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress toward the agreed-upon targets for at least two continuous years prior to the final report, then Defendants will exit federal monitoring. A final report has yet to be issued.
In 2021 the State was able to negotiate a temporary “COVID Recovery Period Agreement,” under which the co-neutrals agreed to suspend rendering a judgment with respect to DHS’ good faith efforts regarding seven additional performance measures that were designated as “Delayed Performance Area Measures”.
The system has not improved and the State is failing children and families. We must acknowledge that children have rights and that separation of families is traumatic, in particular for children, but also for parents and other extended family members. Without understanding and acknowledging this harm, we are perpetuating a cycle of emotionally traumatized adults, adding to the mental health crisis that is already plaguing our society.
The State of Oklahoma has not met its goals. In fact, the State willfully broke the rules to prevent information of specific cases from being included in federal reports. If information regarding fraudulent adoptions, coercion, false police reports, and due process complaints were to be documented, that could set a new first down marker for state and federal monitoring.
Some of the statistics that have been omitted tell the real story of the tradeoff that has occurred for little to no measurable improvement:
Legal abuse (Laws and Outcomes Favoring Adoption Industry, Equating Money with Parenting)
Termination of parental rights outside of DHS influence.
Cases were reported, but no action was taken.
Cases in which fraud or governmental abuse is claimed.
Denial of relatives as permanent homes, just to name a few.
The core of the matter is establishing some control, which means there must be real discipline and monitoring for the civil rights of both the children and parents. Each of the families had some issue hovering over their heads in which the government felt compelled to intervene. At that moment, the civil liberties of each party originally involved became extremely relevant, despite actions by the State of Oklahoma, in all of its branches and nonprofits, to ignore those liberties.
“Every day in the United States, the government separates children from their parents based on their parent’s immigration status, incarceration, or involvement in the child welfare system—and the children have no constitutional say in the matter. The majority of these families are racial minorities and economically underprivileged.” Author Shanta Trivedi points out in her article My Family Belongs to Me: A Child’s Constitutional Right to Family Integrity (56 Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review (2021) )
Even after seeking the help of authorities and the State of Oklahoma’s social system, the children were still taken from their natural parents. There were never any real intentions of reuniting families. These cases are never brought before their peers and are hidden behind closed doors of the courts. Community members were, and continue to be, unaware. Communities become allured by the social media presence and fundraising for many of the adoption organizations, forgetting that adoption was the last stop on the charity train route. On the outside it would appear there is no problem; the children have newer clothes, appear as if they are on a Disneyland vacation, and their physical looks changed. The children’s names are different having been hastily changed to put everything, including their real parents, behind them. As if none of this ever happened. Shiny and bright marketing gets the attention, not the dark side, the shortcomings of the system that fail to take action to reunite families but, rather, leave families shattered and destroyed.
Dr. Deborah Shropshire is the director of Child Welfare Services for Oklahoma Human Services and a practicing pediatrician. In a February 2022 “opinion” article in the Daily Oklahoman entitled, Viewpoint: Oklahoma foster children need families like yours to step forward, Shropshire tried to sell Oklahomans on positive changes to Oklahoma’s child welfare system without a single stat offered. She claimed in her celebratory article that they “work through the Pinnacle Plan to create real and lasting system improvements. We pause for only a moment to celebrate fewer kids in the system who are experiencing shorter stays in foster care, massive reductions in the number of nights kids, particularly older ones, are spending in shelters and the greatest number of families in many years reunifying with their children after working hard to correct the safety concerns that led to their removal from the home.” Is any of this true? The short answer is no.
She continued, “[W]e won’t stop until we’ve met that kid’s needs and built pathways to help his family overcome whatever barriers they were facing to truly thrive…..Like all parenting, it is messy but beautiful, hard but rewarding, painful but awe-inspiring. Our foster families walk alongside children’s biological parents in some of the darkest times of their lives and help them discover and enhance the strengths they may have lost sight of through their trauma. I know from this work that all families can be successful with a little extra support and a lot of perseverance…….We need you to understand that our children’s pasts don’t define their future. Neither do their parents’ pasts. We need you to know that kids in foster care are more than a list of behaviors on a piece of paper. ”
Shropshire is living in a world all her own. Milestones have not been met. There is no walking alongside the families we interviewed. The actions of everyone surrounding these families were an attack on the family structure and those who should have helped the families, turned away.
To make matters worse we found that the State of Oklahoma’s Supreme Court is rushing through poorly considered opinions, in order to backtrack on the actions of state employees, removing barriers to potential hazards that are directly attributable to and correlated with human trafficking. All opinions, when reviewed closely, dissect parental rights, to the point only the bone is left.
In a recent Stillwater Newspress Editorial, the editors exclaimed “Parents Don’t Always Know Best for their children,” culminating a decade of the media ignoring families’ pleas for help to reporters, governmental entities, such as Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth (OCCY), and other state officials. While ignoring the current state of the child welfare system and the destruction of Oklahoma families by DHS and the courts and failing to step in and focus on reunification of families, the State is focusing on ways to expedite and highlight adoptions, at the peril of many families who have been abused by the system and are losing their children forever.
One example is the establishment of the H.E.L.P. Task Force for the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Legislature. H.E.L.P. is charged with eliminating unnecessary barriers to adoption and helping make Oklahoma the most adoption-friendly state in the country.
Friendly to whom? What about prioritizing family reunification, not destroying it?
It is the recommendation of the H.E.L.P. Task Force for the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Legislature to identify all opportunities to provide and expand available funding through the Choosing Childbirth Act and how it is allocated throughout the state. It is also the recommendation of the H.E.L.P. Task Force to create an Oklahoma life and parenting brand with a landing page on an Oklahoma website that compiles life and parenting resources, initiatives, programs, assistance, and educational information to fulfill task force objectives with the request for funding from the legislature if needed. The task force has many, many recommendations; however, none of them help keep biological families together.
The members of the H.E.L.P. task force are out of touch with the families who are caught in the net of family destruction by the state, those being forced into corners and relinquishing their parental rights after being beaten down by the system and given no other choice. While adoption is a great thing in some situations, there are many situations where the children being adopted are only available to adoptive families after their biological parents have had their rights violated, were abused by the system, including unwarranted removal of the children in the first place, and/or were never given the services or opportunities to reunify with their children. Families must come first.
Stabilizing families is what The Family First Act of 2018 was designed to do. The money is for keeping the families together. Oklahoma needs to utilize its resources to comply with the Family First Act, keeping families together, and not making it easier to tear families apart in order to be the State leading the way to make Oklahoma the most adoption-friendly state. Wouldn’t it be even better to be the best family reunification state, leading the nation in providing services, resources and outstanding legal representation to ensure families stay together and parents are actively involved in the lives of their children?
We reached out to state leaders to comment on The Pinnacle Plan and the fraud that has taken place to silence families and were met with resistance from Danny Williams (R-Seminole) a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, representing District 28. We asked Williams of his knowledge of any reform measures on the 2023 ballot and instead were disinvited from his house panel meeting on parent’s rights at the suggestion of fellow attendee, Micah Sexton. Sexton and The Saville Center Inc, whom he represents as a board member and legal representative were sued by several Oklahoma families including a member of The Oklahoma Post.
Under the pressure of publicity and an outpouring of concerned constituents, Danny Williams and others have begun “Independent Studies” of parental rights and family unity issues. However, the information presented to the leaders is off-topic and heavily geared towards restricting parental rights. Some of the studies include:
IS-2022-19, by Representative Jech, on the Health and Human Services committee studying, Divorce/Custody Concerns
IS-2022-28 Pederson, Health and Human Services, Permanency Of Foster Kids
IS-2022-31 Rader, Health and Human Services, Children In DHS Custody
House -022-034 The effect of government on parents in the state-Father receives the same rights as mothers in the state.
Those in attendance at a June 2022 interim study proposal meeting on parental and “guardian” rights held by Representative Williams to examine Father’s Rights as they move alongside of the Pinnacle Plan were surprised to find that there was a review of the Pinnacle Plan to see if it is helping Oklahoma children. Persons invited to attend the meeting included: Liza Greve the Director of Oklahomans Parental Rights; Micah Sexton, attorney and board member of the Saville Center, Kim Richey with OCPA; Jay McCown with Fathers Parental Rights Law Center; Susan Boehrer a Foster Parent concerned with foster payments; Brittany Hunt Jassey with OKDHS; Sarah Herrian with Foster Care Adoption Association of Oklahoma. Missing from the list of invitees were families who have been abused by OKDHS and the courts, persons who have had their parental rights violated, and parents and family rights advocates. The published purpose of the study proposal was how to improve the rights of parents and guardians, yet parents were left off the list of persons to be notified and invited. Aren’t they the ones that this study was supposedly set up to help? Instead, the focus seemed to be on the further exploitation of parents and continued violations, not the improvement of their rights.
For example, Chris Calvert, a self-proclaimed scientist (trained meteorologist) and attorney was invited to speak at the meeting. His presentation was entitled “Reducing Time to Permanency: Freeing a Child for Adoption Without a Jury.” Calvert began his comments by saying, “I don’t have any children. I have no emotional ties to this.” He went on to say, “The science is clear. We only need to provide for their physical needs.” He concluded that in cases where custody and parental rights are at stake “jury trials are not needed.” One advocate in attendance was sickened by his flippant comments and total disregard of parental rights. The justice system relies on juries to ensure persons are provided with a fair trial in criminal cases and most civil cases so why on Earth is a jury not good enough for deprivation and custody cases? Parties, the parents, deserve fair trials and the choice of who decides, judge or jury. Parental rights MUST be protected at all costs as families and lives hang in the balance.
To the peril of Oklahoma families, the State is focusing on fast-tracking adoptions in response to the abortion ban, increasing funding to foster families, and wasting time pretending to be interested in protecting family rights by conducting studies and holding meetings where the invited attendees represent agencies and organizations that don’t support increased and enforced parental rights, and purposely excluding the families directly involved in the social service and family court systems. The State needs to get its priorities straight and start putting families first, supporting the children and parents enmeshed in the social service and family court systems. The State must start holding state and private agencies, courts and attorneys accountable, ensuring the rights of parents and children are protected; making sure family unity is the rule, not the exception. The Pinnacle Plan sets out necessary reforms for the social service (foster care) system, but it means nothing if accountability, action and enforcement aren’t there. The same is true for much needed family court reform. It’s time for the State to stand up for families, in the words of Governor Stitt, “God gave children to their parents, not the government.”
John Talley Statement On Parental Rights
Following the rush of committees to rally around the poor behavior of the Oklahoma judiciary, OKDHS, and attornies, House Representative of Stillwaters’ District 33, Mr. John Talley, released a statement on the outpouring of alleged illegal activity in his district and lack of protections from the District Attorney office.
The Oklahoma Post reached out to out-spoken family advocates and asked: What can we do to improve the outcomes for Children and Families?
Based on the personal experiences and observations of persons connected to The Oklahoma Post, along with the input of many families, we encourage our readers to speak up and take action. We gathered a list from everyone involved and placed the recommendations below.
First and foremost, God does not request that over and over to the vulnerable, immature, hazy minds of the recently traumatized, by encouraging permanent adoptions through brainwashing tactics of constantly using high-pressure statements just before each court hearing.
Like any industry, there must be regulation and, at a bare minimum, accountability. There has been none shown by OKDHS nor the Oklahoma Bar Association.
1. We need legislation that gives a presumption of best interest as being family. It should be the burden of the opposing party (The State) to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a family member is not the best interest.Call your State Rep and your Congressman.
Stress the importance of outstanding legal representation for parents and children to not lose their biological bonds, especially when resources are tied to keeping the American Family healthy.
In one county alone we are aware that the same lawyers have been representing family cases for so long that they are now seeing the second generation. The ADA in the same county recently argued in a written brief AGAINST the OK Statute and the OKDHS policy that should have been followed in the placement of children. Lawyers are representing clients without ever meeting them. It is likely this is happening in other counties as well.
IDENTIFIED BARRIERS TO HIGH-QUALITY REPRESENTATION IN OKLAHOMA
Appeals Of great concern to the task force…
Timing of appointments
Support from the judiciary
This information presents a fantastic opportunity for the legislature to work with the OK Bar Association to find ways to improve the outcomes for our children and families through the pursuit of excellence in legal representation and more quality for our tax dollars. There ought to be free counsel available to parents before they lose their children and an avenue for redress, like an administrative hearing or an independent review, so parents, armed with representation, have the option to appeal the separations.
2. Confidentiality is a major contributor to the poor treatment of families and children.
Confidentiality is supposed to be a protection for families and children involved in the child welfare system. I do not know any who are not anxious to share their story. Some important stories we didn’t tell, but should certainly be told by a larger platform, are the stories of the 18-30-year-old adults regarding their OKDHs foster experiences. We were unable to obtain their information to verify stories. They are looking for help. You cannot advocate for them if you cannot have a discussion with decision-makers that won’t help get the information. I believe that a family’s right to privacy should be treated like their medical information. The welfare agency should not be allowed to discuss matters without the family’s permission, but the family members and their designees do not have any obligation to confidentiality. Many of the families can not even obtain their paperwork from the state to work through the legal system or tell their story, because of corrupt courts hiding behind confidentiality laws…..involving their own cases. Some don’t have the money to contest or even obtain court transcripts. Smaller platforms don’t have the money for continued FOI lawsuits. The state should at least give the families their information.
3. Family Advocacy.
We need a system in place that allows for a family advocate. Groups like the George Kaiser Family Foundation do a great job advocating with the courts and corporations in Tulsa for families. Oklahoma families need more support. Parents should have a form that could be signed to give permission to family members and/or friends who would have the right to speak to and get information from caseworkers and supervisors regarding their case. Clerks and state agencies need training on forms for indigent families. Like the form signed at a medical facility giving them permission to release your information to specific parties. Private attorneys are not willing to rock the boat and/or cost these families up to $350 to begin working for their families. Reunification therapy costs a large family in one case $750 per hour.
4. Call Your District Attorney and Demand Real Accountability.
Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth is responsible for the local PARB Boards, but they have small teeth. In Payne County, training of OKDHS staff is lacking, crimes have been committed by DHS workers for a decade under Child Welfare District 9 Director Justin Hoenshell’s leadership, and the District Attorney has blissfully ignored problems in her office. Residents see the results and realize the local leadership is not equipped for their task. Another problem is that these people, including the DA, have such involvement on related non-profit boards that they cannot enforce the law.
The local DA and OKDHS are allowed to present ex parte recommendations to the judge without the knowledge of the families they are reporting about, and they are said to have a profound influence on the judge. If they do receive a complaint, they are clear that they do not have any authority. All they can do is call attention to the problem.
Complaints TO OKDHS about OKDHS do absolutely nothing and confidentiality further hinders that process.
5. Help withFaith-Based Services.
Most churches are looking for a way to be more involved in their communities by serving people. We could and should involve them in supporting family preservation. There are supports for foster children and foster families. We do not have the same for natural God-given families.
Transportation to and from appointments and visitations can be difficult for parents who do not have adequate transportation or money. In Payne County, all services are in Stillwater. This means a 30-minute drive for the people in that community to attend anything at the DHS office or the courthouse if the office keeps the appointment.
Parenting classes required for the placement of children (even your own family) are costly to the state and difficult for families. Most churches would have a place and a person who could provide a qualified curriculum for needy families. This could be a money saver for the state and relief to families.
Churches could develop support groups and adopt a family program. These could double as support for families who have experienced generational trauma that has left them without adequate patriarchal leadership. If these types of programs could be recognized by OKDHS and fulfill the requirements of treatment plans. As part of these programs, churches would be able to provide for physical needs to provide adequate, safe homes for their children. This would require a cooperative effort between the churches and OKDHS. I know many churches would be willing and able to begin. Meant to create a family-first approach, centered on returning children to a better, healthier home.
Sign up to become a foster parent with the intent of loving strongly as you can in hopes of reuniting a healthy family that you found. These stories are heartbreaking, but they are even more heartbreaking when a successful reunification is stalled. Be that temporary home that these families need. To learn more about becoming a foster parent and serving the needs of children and families in your local community, go to https://okfosters.org/ or call 800-376-9729.
7. The families and the Oklahoma Post encourage you to reach out to your State Rep tomorrow!
Voice your concerns and tell them it’s time to take action to ensure families are the priority and rights are protected. Reach out and ensure your local representatives ensure new federal funding available under the Family First Act to:
Ensure options for early care and education are included in a kinship navigator program similar to what is available in Texas. The Family First Act provides an opportunity to better support relatives who step up to take care of children involved in the child welfare system through “kinship navigator programs.” These programs help grandparents, uncles, aunts, or other relatives connect with other kinship caregivers for support and understand and locate various benefits and services.
Work to meet the broader goal of expanding the availability of safe, high-quality child care in Oklahoma.
home visiting programs are enforced for parents and their children;
substance use treatment for parents and guardians in need;
mental health treatment for parents and guardians in need;
behavioral health services that address trauma and support early brain development for children, including services for infants and toddlers;
supports and services for parenting youth in foster care;
adequate legal representation is critical to the fair treatment of children and families and the guarantee of their constitutional rights. It is also a state expense because most of these families are represented by court-appointed lawyers.
Texas changed the definition of neglectto ensure “immediate threat” is needed to remove the illegal placement of children from unsubstantiated cases, not just vitriol or that something “could happen” to a child. This cuts down on legal abuse.
on July 22, 2019, the Oklahoma Supreme Court approved the establishment of a task force to study and report on legal representation of children and parents in legal proceedings set forth in the Oklahoma Children’s Code. Where is the funding for parents facing termination of rights?
request oversight of every termination of parental rights. Right now no agency has authority over corrupt employees;
Demand accountability when OKDHS, Attornies, and Non-Profits are caught trafficking children;
Demand a Shared Parenting Initiative;
Childhood should be a time of joy and wonder, not pain and abuse. All Oklahomans have a legal and moral obligation to report suspected abuse or neglect of any child by calling 1-800-522-3511. Making a report may not only save a life, but it is also the statutorily-required action that gives OKDHS the ability to investigate and potentially intervene to protect a child’s safety and well-being.
A benefit of being part of advocacy collaboratives is that persons are better able to “see the bigger picture, to find a community of support and work with others to make a change.
Each of these goals is important to keep children safely out of foster care and to help children thrive if it is necessary to remove a child from a dangerous home and place him or her in foster care. If the home is not dangerous and there is government abuse, then people need to be held accountable. If not, children become a commodity and foundation of a “non” profit and a state-run billion-dollar industry.
Human Trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Men, women and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world.
As Maya Angelou said, about parenting,
“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
(Writing by Robbie Robertson; Editing by Robbie Robertson)
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