Each year, the Oklahoma agency that tracks and investigates abuse and neglect of children issues a detailed statistical report. Buried in all of the numbers is what appears to be a hopeful trend.
During the past six years, the number of child abuse cases — the most severe form of child maltreatment — has plummeted by more than 50%, to 1,407 last year.
At the same time, another measure of how Oklahoma treats its children has risen to alarming levels. During the same period, the number of substantiated cases of child neglect has tripled, to 13,394. That drove an overall 18% increase in the number of cases of abuse, neglect or both since fiscal year 2012, a data analysis by Oklahoma Watch found.
But why would neglect soar and abuse plummet?
Human Services Department officials say they don’t know why, except mainly to suggest that when it comes to child neglect, citizens and professionals who deal with children have become better educated about recognizing the problem, which is defined more broadly than abuse, and are more inclined to report suspected cases.
No one at DHS or among child advocacy groups seems to be celebrating. Some advocates question whether the statistics are accurate and, as they did at a recent legislative hearing, continue to push for more funding to prevent and respond to both abuse and neglect.
“Why overall it (abuse) keeps going down, I don’t know,” said Debi Knecht, DHS deputy director of child welfare programs. “I would like to think society just evolves and stops abusing kids, but I don’t know why that is just in one particular area.”
Among the thousands of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect each year, a large majority involve only neglect. In fiscal 2018, neglect cases made up 86% of the total 15,591 cases, compared with 9% for abuse and 7% for both abuse and neglect.
The most common types of abuse are a threat of harm, such as a child who is in danger of abuse because of their proximity to physical violence, beating or hitting by hand, and beating or hitting with an instrument.
The most common types of neglect are threat of harm, which is when a child faces a direct threat from their environment, such as a home where drug use is present, exposure to domestic violence, and failure to protect a child.
Knecht credits most of the increase in cases of child neglect to statewide efforts to teach law enforcement, teachers and others who work with kids how to recognize and report the problem. Education drives up the number of reports that come into the agency, which leads to more substantiated reports, she said.
Knecht said the opioid epidemic and popularity of methamphetamine have also contributed to growing reports of neglect that involve substance abuse.
Knecht said the increase in neglect cases also could mean the agency is taking action earlier and thus preventing physical abuse. Another contributing factor could be a cultural shift that has caused fewer parents to spank their children, she said.
But Knecht acknowledged it is difficult on the surface to reconcile the divergent trends. An increase in reporting would more likely point to an increase in substantiated abuse, not a decrease, as it did with neglect cases, she said.
Child advocates question the accuracy of the data, saying the number of child abuse cases they see has remained steady or even increased over the past several years.
Dr. Ryan Brown, a child-abuse pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City, said he has seen more cases of child abuse in recent years, not fewer.
“No matter what the DHS numbers say, those physical abuse numbers are not going down,” Brown said.
National reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also show an increase in children suffering from abuse and neglect combined.
Mary Abbott Children’s House conducts forensic interviews of children ages 3 to 18 for criminal investigations in Cleveland, Garvin and McClain counties and surrounding areas. Interviewer Christi Cornett said the organization interviews around 480 children per year, and that number has remained steady since at least 2013.
Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, and Nellie Kelly, executive director of the Child Protection Coalition, said the reported drop in child abuse cases contradicts what they see every day.
“I want to believe we’re getting better, but I find it hard to believe,” Dorman said.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit media organization that covers significant public policy issues facing the state.