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Oklahoma has new plan to bring down high rates of child abuse, neglect

Pinwheels are planted in the Myriad Botanical Gardens to raise awareness about child abuse in April 2017. [Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman archives]
Pinwheels are planted in the Myriad Botanical Gardens to raise awareness about child abuse in April 2017. [Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman archives]

Oklahoma City — The number of child abuse and neglect cases in Oklahoma doubled from 2010 to 2017, but advocates hope a new prevention plan will start to reduce the toll.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health recorded 15,289 children were victims of abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2017 — about 15.9 confirmed instances per 1,000 children. The national average is 9.0 instances in a group of the same size.

About 88 percent of the children experienced neglect, meaning their needs for food, water, shelter, medical care or appropriate supervision weren't met. The majority were younger than 6.

The Health Department surveyed people working in child welfare and the general public about what resources they were aware of, and where they see unmet needs, said Beth Martin, director of family support and prevention services.

Finding mental health care and affordable child care proved most challenging for parents. Younger parents and those with less money were less likely to know about available resources in their communities, according to the survey.

The plan sets goals to increase access to supports, like mental health care; to increase public knowledge about parenting skills; and to encourage communities to build support networks so parents aren't isolated, Martin said.

The Health Department's job is to run education programs for the general public, like offering information about coping with a crying infant to new parents, and to offer some services to families who have a child with challenging behavior, Martin said. Other agencies and nonprofits intervene more directly with families, she said.

“This is by no means a project that can be done by one state agency,” she said.

Not a new problem in Oklahoma

The problem of child abuse and neglect isn't new in Oklahoma. About one-third of Oklahoma adults who participated in a 2016 survey said they had been emotionally abused, and more than 10 percent said they had been physically abused. Others recalled circumstances that put them at high risk of neglect, including having a family member who had a mental illness or addiction.

Sherry Fair, executive director of Parent Promise, said the new plan is more focused than the state's previous attempts, so it's clearer who is accountable for meeting its goals. It also puts a new emphasis on understanding trauma that parents may have gone through, and what help they need to keep it from affecting their children, she said.

“This plan focuses on what has gone on in those parents' lives, or is going on in their lives, that is not allowing them to focus on raising children in a safe, secure, healthy environment,” she said. “I think we used to look at these parents and go, ‘What's wrong with these people that they won't take care of their kids?'”

The Health Department will present an update to the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth annually and will make changes based on feedback from the commission and partner organizations as the plan moves forward, Martin said.

“If something isn't working, we'll take it out,” she said.

Read the plan


To read the full plan, visit

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›