Tahlequah Daily Press

July 6, 2007

Oklahoma first in deaths of abused children

By TEDDYE SNELL

Despite raised awareness of child abuse over the past 20 to 30 years, the fact are still difficult for many people to fathom.

“It never going to be a good, over-the-dinner-table discussion,” said Jo Prout, executive director for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cherokee Country. “I think it’s a telling commentary on our society when we can’t take care of our children. As they say, the children are our future, and we should do everything within our power to take care of that future. No child deserves to live in fear.”

Many area residents may be surprised to learn Oklahoma ranks first, per capita, in deaths of children caused by child abuse. According to a new report by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, from October 2004 through September 2004, 41 children died from abuse or neglect, giving Oklahoma a rate of 4.8 deaths per 100,000 children. The national rate is 1.96 deaths per 100,000 children.

Prout found the number alarming, and hopes it will prompt area residents to become more active in prevention measures.

According to the agency’s statistics for the 2006 calendar year, CASA of Cherokee Country assisted 95 children, 80 of whom were Native American.

“Since January 2007, we have assisted 86 children, 72 of whom are Native American,” said Prout. “Either way you look at it, about 76 percent of the children we’re involved with are Native American, a number that’s grown exponentially since I began working with CASA.”

Prout believes the higher number could be due to the high Native American population in the area, or that Native Americans could be less wary about reporting abuse than in previous years.

Of all the Native American tribes in the United States, only nine have tribal CASA agencies.

“We are ranked the largest of those nine, with the second-largest being the Creek tribal CASA, which works out of Okmulgee county,” said Prout.

CASA of Cherokee Country assists families by providing advocates who serve as voices for abused and neglected children in three different court systems: Cherokee County District Court, Adair County District Court and Cherokee Nation Tribal Court.

While the CASA agency is far-reaching in the immediate area, Cherokee Nation’s Division of Children Youth and Family Services, assists Cherokee children in 44 of 50 states. According to Group Leader Norma Merriman, that’s a task that can be daunting.

“Tahlequah is but one area that lies within our 14-county jurisdiction,” said Merriman. “Not only do we work with Cherokee families within the 14-counties, we literally have youth cases in 44 states, which could very well increase to all 50 states at any time.”

Merriman said that following the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Cherokee Nation has to be notified any time a report of abuse or neglect occurs involving a Cherokee child. Since the ICWA was established, the tribe has developed a special unit that deals with Cherokee youth outside its jurisdiction.

“We had call from Maine just the other day,” said Merriman. “We work with an amazing number of children from other states. Sometimes it involves bringing the child back to Tahlequah, and those cases usually result in adoption.”

While Prout understands many agencies work toward family reunification, she doesn’t necessarily believe all parents are cut out raise children.

“There are some people who have children who really have no business doing so,” said Prout.

While family unification is the ultimate goal of the tribe’s CYF Services, Merriman is equally proud of the adoption services they provide.

Cherokee Nation adoption services trains and certifies Indian families and relative homes to be permanent placements for Cherokee and any other Indian children needing permanency when the parental rights have been terminated.

“This unit also works with birth parents who express a desire to voluntarily place their children for adoption,” said Merriman. “Consultation to birth parents is provided, explaining all the rights and obligations of such a decision.”

Both Prout and Merriman agree that lack of funding and staffing create problems for both CASA and CN Children, Youth and Family Services.

“We lost 19 volunteers in just the past year,” said Prout. “It reduced the number of children served by about 50. While the remaining volunteers picked up cases left by others, it has prevented us from being able to take on new cases.”

Merriman said the tribe is involved in a few pilot child abuse and neglect prevention programs, but the focus is on the overwhelming number of cases already on the books.

“While the tribe has given us additional funding for prevention, we have to put out the fires first,” said Merriman. “We have so many families who need help, especially with all the drug abuse - particularly methamphetamine. While we’d like to have more out there regarding prevention, we have to help the children in danger first.”

Contact Teddye Snell at tsnell@tahlequahdailypress.com.