The tragic news coming from Cyril, Okla., regarding the death of 4-year-old Athena Brownfield has brought forth as many questions as answers over the past few weeks.
For those not following the horrifying story, a postal worker reported to authorities a five-year-old was unattended and in a location where she was not supposed to be. This led to the investigation that found her four-year-old sister was missing and later found dead at the hands of their caregivers.
I want to extend thanks to all of those working on this case, but especially to the person who reported the incident. If not for this postal worker reporting an issue with her sister, there is no telling how long it would have gone with not knowing about the death of this child.
Unfortunately, this tragic tale is not unique. Under the most recent annual report provided by Oklahoma Human Services from July 2020 through June 2021, the abuse and neglect numbers are staggering. Human Services received 76,546 reports and determined after screening that 36,299 of them met the definition of abuse or neglect and required investigation or assessment.
While those numbers are of reports made, these can be of multiple children in families. The numbers for individual children are equally horrifying. There were 62,326 children for whom an investigation was completed. Of those, 14,466 had a substantiated case of child abuse or neglect. Athena and her sister will be two of the children that we will see in the 2023 numbers.
Frighteningly, these numbers are significantly lower than in previous years, likely due to the isolation from the pandemic and children not being around those who might report cases of abuse and neglect.
Regarding child deaths, 42 young Oklahomans like Athena perished due to abuse and neglect cases in 2020, according to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Some are going to look for those to blame. Many of these cases are resolved with an investigation by the state, once reported, but the abuse or neglect has likely been happening for much longer. In the local school system, if a child is being kept at home under the pretense of being home-schooled, local schools have no idea about what happens with these children. Additionally, there is no requirement under law for an annual well-being check by a pediatrician.
What can we do to help stop abuse and neglect? Answers are not easy. Under the guise of “parental rights,” the above scenarios will be hard to change.
The most important thing we can all do under current law is if you believe a child is being abused or neglected, you have a legal responsibility to report it under Oklahoma state law. This includes teachers in the classroom, who now must report to legal authorities first and not their direct supervisors in the school system.
If you feel the situation is an emergency, please call 911, and if you suspect an issue regarding a child facing abuse or neglect, call the Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-522-3511.
About the author: Joe Dorman, is CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy now celebrating its 40th Anniversary. The organization was established in 1983 by a group of citizens seeking to create a strong advocacy network that would provide a voice for the needs of children and youth in Oklahoma, particularly those in the state’s care and those growing up amid poverty, violence, abuse and neglect, disparities, or other situations that put their lives and future at risk. Our mission statement: “Creating awareness, taking action and changing policy to improve the health, safety, and well-being of Oklahoma’s children.”