Bill would end state’s Santa Claus Commission

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OKLAHOMA FOSTER CHILDREN

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OKLAHOMA CITY - The Santa Claus Commission – established 82 years ago to ensure that all children in state custody receive at least one present at Christmas – is targeted for dissolution.

Senate Bill 1677 by Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, would abolish the Santa Claus Commission. It was created in 1937 to “provide or purchase ... a Christmas present for every child who is in the custody of the state... who would not otherwise receive a present.” Those include any minors “residing in a childcare institution of the Department of Human Services or the Office of Juvenile Affairs, a licensed childcare institution or a group home or foster home, supported in whole or in part by the state...” 

The commission is comprised of three members appointed by the executive director of the Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA). “The commission is unnecessary, as DHS is handling everything the commission used to do for foster children,” Dahm said. “So, it is an extra entity that doesn’t need to exist, as the state agency is handling all the current responsibilities. We are simply eliminating the commission but continuing the work in a more efficient manner.” Joe Dorman, chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA), said Oklahoma has approximately 8,000 children in foster care.

SANTA CLAUS COMMISSION, OICA, OTHER ORGANIZATIONS PROVIDE FOSTER KIDS GIFTS

Michael McNutt, communications director for the Office of Juvenile Affairs, said the Santa Claus Commission distributed gifts to 315 youths in group homes or secure-care treatment facilities in 2019. Presents for each child included a duffel bag, a photo book, body wash, a sketch pad, a coloring book, lip balm, a candy bar and a pair of colorful Christmas socks, McNutt said. Every OJA youth in the 12 group homes across the state that have contracts with the agency received a $20 gift card.

Youths in OJA’s two secure-care treatment facilities, at Manitou and Tecumseh, each received $20 in their canteen fund; that is an individually directed fund that allows the child to purchase facility-approved items such as snacks and hygiene products. Oklahoma’s Credit Union waived the usual processing fee for the gift cards, McNutt said. “We focus on practical and safe gifts, with some of them suggested by young people in our care,” OJA Executive Director Steven

Buck said. Hopefully the presents “provide a little sparkle during the holiday season when it can be stressful to be away from family and friends,” Buck said. The gifts amounted to nearly $50 for each of the 315 children, McNutt said. “Final bills are still being processed, but it appears” that the gifts distributed to children in OJA’s custody “will be close to the $15,000” that was authorized, he said. The Santa Claus Commission had $43,998.48 in its account in November 2019, McNutt said. After the Christ-mas 2019 gifts are paid, the Santa Claus Commission should have approximately $29,000 in its account, he said.

Meanwhile, the OICA collected donations of money, clothing, toys and other gifts for approximately 4,500 foster children last Christmas, Dor- man said. “It came to about $75 per child.” Approximately 15 counties, including Tulsa and Cleveland, conduct their own programs to benefit foster children, he said.

TIME FOR TRANSITION TO PRIVATIZATION?

“Youths in the care of OJA should be remembered during the holidays and providing gifts to them is a practical and efficient way to do that,” Buck said. “But is it necessary for a state commission to be involved in this effort? Perhaps a nonprofit entity could be more effective in seeking donations and investing its funds, as has been the case in the Department of Human Services’ partnership with OK Foster Wishes and others.

“I’m willing to have a discussion with legislators on whether the Santa Claus Commission, formed nearly 100 years ago, is still practical in the 21st century or whether the commission can be sunset but OJA remain functionally responsible for facilitating this critical task. “The Santa Claus Commission operates from private donations and collects interest from the dollars currently available, but this is the appropriate time to either enhance our time and effort to continue directly gathering financial support or strategically partner with others in our community to meet the objective,” Buck said. “Giving young people in our care presents during the holidays is a simple way to let them know someone cares.”

The Santa Claus Commission receives no appropriated tax dollars from the Legislature. Money in the account comes from donations and interest earnings over the years since it was created in 1937, McNutt said. Donations have “tailed off in recent years,” he said. “It received $20 in donations in 2019.” Most of the earnings are from interest. Last year, interest earnings amounted to about $100 a month, McNutt said. Privatization of supplying Christmas gifts for needy children and those who are in state care has been discussed in lieu of the Santa Claus Commission at one time or another.  For example, Dahm’s proposal to eliminate the Santa Claus Commission isn’t the first. A 1986 vote by the state House of Representatives to eliminate the commission failed on a 61-33 vote, McNutt said.

THOUSANDS OF CHILDREN PLACED IN STATE CUSTODY EACH YEAR

For myriad reasons, thousands of children are placed by the courts into the custody of the state Department of Human Services each year. The children range in age from birth to 18 years and are all races, cultures and religions, records reflect. Some of the children are physically, mentally or emotionally challenged. A child may have suffered from physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse or severe neglect by a person who is responsible for the child. The child’s parents may have been arrested and put in jail.

Dorman said he was told by a knowledgeable source that the DHS hotline receives about 220 calls each day reporting an incident of child abuse. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019, the agency received 81,292 such calls (although many were repetitions), Dorman said. “The emotional issues these kids have to deal with go far beyond what a child in stable home experiences,” he said. “We need to invest more in counseling.”

FOSTER CHILDREN MOVE FROM HOME TO HOME

Oklahoma has “a lot of issues pertaining to kids,” Dorman said. For example, only about 1% of the children in foster homes in this state earn a high-school diploma or a GED. “Most drop out of school or become runaways, or simply disappear,” he said. A foster child in Oklahoma typically experiences a dozen placements with different families before he or she “ages out” of the system at 18, Dorman said. One foster child, a 17-year-old boy, had more than 40 foster placements by the time he turned 18, Dorman said.