Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak & bare,
And their ways are fill'd with thorns;
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall,
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.—William Blake’s “Holy Thursday,” 1794, Songs of Experience
Let us all hope the civil rights lawsuit filed this week against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services will open up a real dialogue here about how to solve the state’s massive socioeconomic problems.
Children’s Rights, a child advocacy group based in New York, has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order reforms to the state’s child welfare system because, as a spokesperson for the group puts it, “Oklahoma has long maintained one of the most dangerous and badly mismanaged child welfare systems in the nation, and thousands of children have suffered under nightmarish conditions for years as a result.”
The lawsuit was filed by Children’s Rights, four Oklahoma law firms and the international law firm Kaye Scholer. The lawsuit, according to Children’s Rights, alleges DHS has violated the “constitutional rights of children by routinely placing them in unsafe, unsupervised, and unstable situations in which many suffer further abuse—and some die—due to the department’s longstanding failure to correct widespread problems that prevent it from providing adequate care and protection.”
Nine children are plaintiffs in the case. In its press release, Children’s Rights cited three individual cases in which children were mistreated. One of the children, according to the organization, was a 10-month-old girl who had been moved within the child welfare system 16 times, suffered a skull fracture because of “severe physical abuse” and then later suffered dehydration and seizures because of neglect.
DHS social workers have excessive caseloads, according to the organization, and this is cited as a major reason for the problems.
The lawsuit should not be viewed as an attack on the vast majority of DHS workers, who work for relatively low wages and do their best to help abused and impoverished children. These tireless and committed workers deserve fewer caseloads, better wages and more public support. But it is unfortunate or “disgraceful,” as Children's Rights describes it, that a federal court order may be necessary to make improvements to the system.
Any discussion generated by the lawsuit about how to improve the state’s child welfare system should take the larger issues into consideration:
(1) Poverty. The state continues to report high rates of poverty and hunger among its residents. In fact, the state recently led the nation in the rate for hungry families. Children here lack health insurance in staggering numbers as well. Poverty, hunger and poor health care obviously lead to child abuse, neglect and abandonment. But conservative ideology, held by both Republicans and Democrats here, teaches that people “choose” to be poor, "choose" to suffer from mental illnesses, "choose" to go without health insurance for themselves or children. (Read the last sentence in this Oklahoman editorial.) How can you solve these issues, then, unless there is a dramatic shift away from the prevailing Laissez-faire philosophy here to real social commitment and engagement?
(2) Education. The state has low college graduation rates that reflect uneven educational programs at all levels. Educated people make more money than non-educated people. They are more likely to have health insurance. They are more likely to make better family-related decisions. Obviously, it is easy to throw the word “education” at every social problem in the state, but that does not mean it is not true. Tragically, the state has an embedded anti-education bias promoted by its major corporate power structure, which works against adequate public school funding at every turn.
(3) Political Change. The nation has gone through three decades now of vilifying poor people and cutting programs that might help them. The wealthiest people in our country and state have benefited the most from the ensuing tax cuts and breaks. Why do voters here continue to line the pockets of millionaires in the new “imperial age” with tax cuts and then refuse to engage with the social reality around them? Why are they satisfied with stagnant wages and a broken health care system? We need overall better living standards in Oklahoma, the nation and world. We need a stronger commitment to basic human rights.
The lawsuit may well generate a discussion about specific administrative ideas that would improve our child welfare system, such as hiring more DHS workers, and these ideas will be important. But nothing will change here unless we engage the larger issues.
Oklahoma’s new anti-illegal immigration law, the strictest such legislation in the country, continues to draw opposition as Hispanic people, according to some, leave the state in droves.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has filed a lawsuit claiming House Bill 1804, passed last year by the legislature, interferes with federal law. Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include The State Chamber of Oklahoma, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Tulsa Metro Chamber, Oklahoma Restaurant Association and Oklahoma Hotel and Lodging Association.
The bill denies state services to illegal immigrants and forces businesses to verify the immigration status of their employees. Ultimately, the bill can be seen as a legal crackdown on businesses, which employ illegal immigrants. Many of the state’s illegal immigrants are Hispanic and work in construction and at restaurants.
In a statement issued about the lawsuit, the chamber argues that “piecemeal immigration laws are not the answer, and that Congress needs to enact comprehensive federal immigration reform."
It is unclear if the chamber lawsuit can be successful. An earlier lawsuit based on a constitutional challenge has been dismissed.
Meanwhile, state Rep. David Braddock (D-Altus), pictured right, said he will introduce legislation this session to repeal provisions of the law, according to media reports. Braddock said farmers and business in his district are suffering financially because “a lot of the labor force just picked up and left — legal and illegal” after the bill was passed.
Braddock told a reporter: "They're absolutely afraid of staying here. They think Oklahoma doesn't want them. I don't think that's what Oklahoma is about.” But Braddock conceded his bill stands little chance of being considered.
Meanwhile, the sponsor of HB 1804, state Rep. Randy Terrill (R-Moore) said the opponents of the bill are promoting “modern-day slavery.” But this leaves out the fact that those seeking work here are often impoverished and cannot find jobs in their home countries. Should we send them back to live in poverty? So the “dialogue” goes on the issue.
There are no reliable figures on how many illegal and legal immigrants have left the state. Anecdotal evidence from Hispanic organizations, businesses who serve the Hispanic community and construction industry spokespeople suggests there has been a substantial exodus. This is problematic for the state’s economic development and its image. It makes the state seem intolerant. The bill also puts Oklahoma at a disadvantage economically with some surrounding states.
As I argued earlier, strong opposition to the bill has come mainly after it was passed. All the problems created by the bill—lack of workers for farming and construction, for example—were accurately predicted over the last two years.
Most people agree that illegal immigration is a problem in this country, but it remains a federal issue. Here are some of the questions: What impact do illegal immigrants have on wages in this country? How do we document the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country? How much money will it cost to find and possibly even arrest all of the nation’s illegal immigrants? How can Mexico improve its economy? How do we rationally and logically—not just symbolically with a wall or border fence—improve border security?
One of the main problems is the fracture between pro-business and law-and-order Republicans over the issue of a guest worker program. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, for example, has supported a guest worker program for illegal immigrants in the past, but the law-and-order wing will not budge on the issue. All this drama is now played out in the state as both sides hurl “modern-day slavery” and “racism” charges at each other.
Ultimately, though, Oklahoma is only hurting itself with this new law. Typical.