The tragic deaths of two Cherokee County children led to criminal convictions in 2014, and experts are warning that child abuse cases seem to be growing in number.
While statewide statistics for last year are not yet available, in the fiscal year of 2013, 17 children in Oklahoma died due to abuse or neglect, while 10 faced near death statistics, according to Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services.
“It’s very clear cases of child abuse and neglect are not diminishing, it’s not slowing down,” said Jo Prout, the executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cherokee Country.
Prout’s CASA chapter works with courts in Cherokee County, Adair County and Cherokee Nation. Trained volunteers advocate for what they believe is best for the child on behalf of the judge, who may request a CASA volunteer. CASA is only involved in cases of abuse and neglect.
There are 15 active volunteers who each give between 10 and 15 hours to a case, which takes about three months.
Prout said she would like to see the number of volunteers double so more children can be better represented in the courts.
Every year, CASA collects this data from DHS and Indian Children Welfare Services to send into the state and national CASA offices. Liz Rainbolt, a CASA employee who collects data and trains volunteers, said DHS has to separate data on abuse and neglect cases from the many other cases their departments handle.
Rainbolt and Prout said they both wish the data was available faster, but understand the process is tedious and time-consuming. Data from 2015 may not be available until the end of 2015 or even 2016.
“We don’t get a clear picture until it’s two years past,” said Prout.
She said the three courts the local CASA volunteers work in recorded 362 cases of child abuse and neglect in 2013; CASA represented children in 89 of those cases.
Prout said in the calendar year of 2014, CASA served one Hispanic child, two African American children, 10 Caucasian children and 69 Native American children.
“And that’s because we don’t just serve Native American children in tribal court,” said Prout.
In Cherokee County, most of these cases are not taken to criminal courts, but through special juvenile courts.
Special District Judge Sandy Crosslin said the first goal in juvenile courts that handle child abuse and neglect is to return children to their homes.
“They do have very specific goals they need to meet,” said Crosslin. “It’s tailored to their issues.”
Crosslin said the overwhelming issue faced by parents charged with child abuse or neglect is some sort of substance abuse.
Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dallis said when cases of child abuse or neglect are extreme enough, a criminal case will be filed with the primary goal of getting justice for the child.
“If a case is so bad they get a criminal court case, they have a juvenile case as well,” said Dallis.
Dallis has only seen one such case since she became a prosecutor in Cherokee County in September.
“That was a pretty horrific case,” said Dallis.
Both of the 2014 Cherokee County criminal cases involving the death of a child at the hands of abuse came to a conclusion in September. Both children were under the age of 4. One suspect was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison, and the second suspect entered a plea agreement.
A recent report from the Associated Press highlights child deaths in the U.S. over a six-year span. According to that report, 25 children in Oklahoma died as a result of abuse or neglect while authorities had an open investigation pertaining to the child.
There was no information from Oklahoma’s 2012-’13 fiscal year in the report.
Across the country, the AP found evidence of 786 children who died from abuse during an investigation.
The Associated Press said the information compiled over an eight-month investigation represented “the most comprehensive statistics publicly available,” because there is no complete set data on deaths of children already overseen by child welfare caseworkers.
“The data collection system on child deaths is so flawed that no one can even say with accuracy how many children overall die from abuse or neglect every year,” reported the Associated Press. “The federal government estimates an average of about 1,650 deaths annually in recent years; many believe the actual number is twice as high.”
Most of the deaths the Associated Press reported were children under the age of 4 – similar to the two deaths in Cherokee County that occurred in the latter part of 2013 and were taken to court in 2014.
Neither of the children were being investigated for abuse or neglect when they died, but one of the children killed had had been placed by DHS into the custody of the woman later convicted of killing the little girl.
“Some do slip through the cracks; not often,” said Prout. “Our volunteers deal with things that are ugly and they observe conditions that are unsavory but none of them have had a case where the child’s life was in danger, not since I’ve been here.”
CASA served 42 children below the age of 5 last year. It was their largest age group served, followed by the 25 children between the ages of 6 and 11.
Crosslin said the early years of a child’s life are the most important to development, and abuse or neglect can lead to lasting emotional, physical and mental damage.
The size of a child’s brain is directly affected by their development during the first years of their life.
“Children are the easiest targets,” said Prout. “You think of what people do to children and you just don’t understand it.”
Prout, Crosslin, Dallis and Rainbolt all said neglect can be just as harmful to children as abuse.
“We see a whole lot of neglect,” said Rainbolt. “Severe neglect can kill a child.”
She said neglect is not just ignoring a child, but also failing to care for their basic needs including medical issues, providing food, sheltering a child and making sure the child is clothed properly for the season.
Dallis said the many organizations and legal systems in Cherokee County strive to work together in order to represent the children in the county.
“We have a good system here,” said Dallis. “I think we really advocate for these kids.”