MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

August 11, 2013

78 children missing from state custody

DHS says they are runaways; some gone since spring

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has 78 missing children on its rolls, all of whom the agency says are runaways, prompting a children’s advocate to criticize the agency for a lack of accountability.

In a copyright story published Sunday, The Oklahoman reported that 38 of the children have been missing for more than three months.

Michelle Zettee, of Midwest City, a former volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, said DHS isn’t consistently ensuring that children are placed in better circumstances once they’re removed from a home.

“I feel that DHS should have as much responsibility to provide adequate supervision and ensure the child’s safety as they are attempting to require from the child’s parents,” Zettee told The Oklahoman.

DHS has more than 10,000 children in its custody. They’re spread among foster homes, shelters and group homes. The agency says none of the 78 children listed as missing have been abducted.

Millie Carpentern, DHS’s permanency and well-being program administrator, and Melissa Jones, a DHS program supervisor, said the agency is accountable. But they said children face a variety of reasons that may inspire them to run away.

Some want more independence, while other try to return to homes from which they’ve been removed because their parents were judged to be unfit, Carpenter said.

“I’ve had just as many run just because they didn’t want to follow rules,” Jones said.

“For the most part, we don’t put children who are in DHS custody in a lock up facility,” Jones said. “They are in facilities where they can walk away.”

Carpenter said staff members try to dissuade children from running away when they find out the youths may be considering it. But those efforts aren’t always effective.

When a child does run away, the agency has a set of protocols to follow, including fling a report with the district attorney, the child’s attorney and the youth’s parents if the parents still have legal rights to the child.

If the child is at high risk of harm or has been abducted, DHS has to notify the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and may request assistance from the Office of Inspector General.

Rebecca Price, director of the Pauline E. Mayer Children’s Shelter in Oklahoma City, said older children can freely leave the center, but staff members are instructed to verbally try to stop them from striking out on their own.

A teenager who is intellectually disabled is to be physically stopped from leaving, Price said.

“But it’s not a locked facility,” Price said. “They (the children) haven’t done anything against the law.”

Zettee said she personally knows of cases in which children were at risk because they ran away. She claimed DHS didn’t do enough to rescue the children.

She noted the case of a 15-year-old girl who ran away from the Oklahoma City shelter; the girl’s mother lived with her for a time.

The girl left a shelter and was “staying with her abusive, drug addicted 19-year-old boyfriend,” Zettee said.

The girl’s mother “reported to DHS several times that her daughter had come around and told her where she was and nobody was doing anything to get the child back in custody,” Zettee said.

Jones said the agency tries to coax runaways to come back.

“In 11 years with the department, more than half of that in management, I’ve never had to reprimand a worker for not making a very diligent effort to find a child,” Jones said. “That’s never been an issue in all the dozens of people that I’ve supervised and worked alongside.”

Carpenter said courts can change a child’s placement if they ran away from a setting that was found to have been inappropriate.

Carpenter said she only knows of one child who died within the past year while on the run from state custody. The girl had a medical condition and had been in contact with relatives while missing.

Carpenter said the agency was trying to find the girl when she died.

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