Increasing Percentage Of Unwed Mothers Straining DHS Services

Wednesday, December 5th 2007, 6:32 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The state of Oklahoma's ability to meet the needs of children and families has been strained by an increase of children born to unwed mothers, the director of the Department of Human Services said.

Out-of-wedlock births in Oklahoma increased from 38.4 % in 2004 to 40.9 percent in 2006, the latest year for which national figures are available.

The higher trend also is being seen across the country, with a national average of 35.8 percent, records show. The percentages by state ranged from 17.5 % in Utah to 55.9 % in Washington D.C.

"If you go back 35 years, less than 10 % of all births in Oklahoma were out of wedlock," DHS Director Howard Hendrick told the Commission on Human Services, which oversees DHS, on Tuesday.

The rising number of babies born to single mothers means that more children are at a greater risk of ending up in the state's foster-care system, Hendrick said.

He told commissioners at their monthly meeting that the development of new strategies to address the growth of out-of-wedlock births is among the agency's major issues.

Medicaid paid for the births of about 57 % of all babies born in Oklahoma last year, according to the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state's Medicaid agency.

Of the slightly more than 54,000 births in Oklahoma last year, 22,077 were to unmarried mothers, according to the Health Department. About 39 % of births in 2005 were to unmarried moms.

Nationally, 37 % of births are to unwed mother, Hendrick said.

"We're a little bit above average," he said.

A national study indicates that in 20 % of out-of-wedlock births, the child has been abandoned by the father before birth, Hendrick said. Of the remaining 80 %, half involve co-habitating couples and 50 % do not.

While 88 percent of the unwed couples indicated they had a 50-50 chance of marrying, a year later only 9 % of those will be married, he said. By the time their children are 4 or 5 years old, only 20 % of the couples will still be together, he said.

Single-parent families frequently live in poverty and have a greater need for a variety of DHS assistance, including food stamps, child care, Medicaid and foster care, Hendrick said.

A new program called FamilyStart involves DHS workers going to the Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, where many Medicaid-funded births occur, and establishing relationships with unwed mothers and unstable families as soon as babies are born, Hendrick said.

Workers in those programs told commissioners one of their major goals is to relieve financial stressors on parents in hopes of keeping them together for the benefit of their children.

More than 800 families have received support through the program so far, according to DHS.