Oklahoma fishing license
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) shakes hands with Tanner, a special-needs foster care program participant who visited the Oklahoma State Capitol on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Tres Savag)

As Steve and Libby Pebworth stood in a State Capitol hallway last week with their foster son, Tanner, they had resigned themselves to the idea that their two-hour drive from Atoka had been for naught.

Unable to gain the documents and bureaucratic cooperation needed to help the young man obtain an Oklahoma fishing license and identification card, the Pebworths felt nearly invisible trying to hand-deliver a letter to the governor’s office detailing the situation, which had dragged on for two years without recourse. Phone calls, meetings, appointments and requests to a slew of government agencies had yielded little progress for Tanner, a 20-year-old high school student with special needs and an insatiable interest in fishing.

“He’s special. He’s just the greatest child. He was adopted by a pastor — you ain’t going to believe this — out of Texas. She got her church to give her money to go to China to get him,” Steve Pebworth told NonDoc on Thursday. “He has a lot of problems. He gets mad and he wants to fight and kick and throw tantrums and get upset, and he doesn’t know why he does it. But when I say, ‘Hey, get your fishing pole,’ he drops everything and gets excited. He gets smiling and happy and jumps up and down, and he forgets why he was mad. We go fishing, and he’s a different child.

“For two years, we’ve been trying to get a fishing license, because I know if he gets caught fishing he’s going to get a ticket.”

Frustrated with their efforts to deliver Gov. Kevin Stitt a letter last Monday, the Pebworths decided to stop by their state representative’s office before heading home and thank the one government official they believed had tried to address the situation: House Speaker Charles McCall.

“Everybody’s nice to you on the phone, but they don’t want to help you. Except Mr. McCall. I’m grateful to him,” Steve Pebworth said, recounting a meeting at AmeriState Bank two months prior in House District 22. “First, I went to Rep. Justin Humphrey, but since we don’t live in his voting district, he couldn’t help us. So I made an appointment with Mr. McCall at the bank. He’s a wonderful guy. He took the time to sit down and listen to everything we had to say. He was pleasant and friendly, and you could tell by his body language that he was interested in what we had to say. He said, ‘This don’t seem right.'”

Two months later, despite following McCall’s recommendations and making a trip to the federal Social Security Administration office in Durant, things still didn’t seem right. As the Pebworths waited in the Capitol hallway April 8, a sergeant at arms relayed their presence to McCall’s secretary. Suddenly, McCall appeared from a separate door following a legislative meeting. He recognized the Pebworths and approached them.

“Good to see you,” McCall told Tanner, before turning to Steve Pebworth. “So who told you that they couldn’t help?”

Fishing license achieved, but ID card still needed

Oklahoma fishing license
Tanner shows off his catch after a day of fishing in Atoka County on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Provided)

Two days later, employees at a pair of state agencies had helped, and Tanner received an Oklahoma fishing license, the less critical half of the documents the Pebworths have been seeking.

“Yesterday, I get a call from the Wildlife Department guy. He was real friendly, and I was upset because they never called me back two months ago with this problem. He apologized and he made an account — I don’t know if it’s special or what — but he made an account, and we got a fishing license yesterday at WalMart,” Steve Pebworth said Thursday. “I don’t know if he’ll be able to get an ID. (…) But we got a fishing license, and that’s half the battle, so I guess I’ll let the monkey stay on somebody else’s back for the ID card.”

What Pebworth didn’t know Monday was that the governor’s office did review his letter, and between the weight of Stitt’s staffers and McCall’s lawyer, leadership of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation made a bold decision, according to Tanner’s caseworker at the Department of Human Services.

“The fishing license finally came about because they got ahold of a supervisor who went in and created a special license for Tanner based on information they received from [us at DHS] confirming that he is in our system and we have his address and that everything he was hearing from the Pebworths was correct,” said Amy Files. “I’ve been working with Tanner for nearly two years now, and in that time we have been working on getting that fishing license because that boy loves to fish, let me tell you.”

Steve Pebworth, who said Tanner likes to be called “Dr. Bob,” said Files has “worked so hard to help us.”

“Out of everybody, Mr. McCall and Ms. Files are the only ones who really care about this boy,” Pebworth said. “If you could watch this boy fish, it breaks your heart how happy he is.”

Micah Holmes, spokesperson for the Department of Wildlife Conservation, said that after agency leaders were alerted to the Pebworths’ situation Wednesday morning, they issued his license that afternoon.

“We have a really high standard for customer service, and we work really hard to provide that customer service. If folks feel like they’re not getting that service right away, please call us back, email us or come and see us,” Holmes said. “We’re always eager to help people out and get them in the field as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

While the Pebworths’ issue was unrelated, Holmes said the agency is preparing for July 1 implementation of SB 941, which passed this session to increase several hunting and fishing license fees in Oklahoma.

Friday morning, Steve Pebworth took Tanner fishing on the banks of Atoka Lake. Combined, they caught 15 catfish and the attention of two state game wardens, who quickly asked to see their licenses.

“For two years, I’ve been taking him fishing in secret out where no one can see him, and finally the first day I take him in public, he gets checked,” Steve Pebworth said Saturday morning. “If it wasn’t for the help getting his license, he would have gotten a ticket Friday morning.”

As Pebworth described how his foster son bragged to the game wardens about the eight fish he caught, Tanner chimed in on the phone call.

“Thank you for helping me,” Tanner said.

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‘A mole hill has become a mountain’

hunting and fishing compacts
Fishermen cast lines Friday, May 21, 2021, below the Lake Eufaula Dam on the south side of the Canadian River in the Choctaw Nation. (Michael Duncan)

The Pebworths have been Oklahoma foster care providers for more than 30 years, and their house became Tanner’s second placement after he ended up in Oklahoma from China by way of Texas. At the Pebworths’ house, he has access to all sorts of animals, including goats, pigs, chickens and peacocks, which were cooing and squawking in the background of the Pebworths’ phone interview Wednesday.

“We’re grateful for it, but he still needs an ID card,” Libby Pebworth said of the fishing license. “It’s been about a two-year battle trying to get what we got.”

To receive a state ID card, Tanner first needs to prove his identity with federal documentation. However, a record-keeping snafu at the Department of Human Services has left the Pebworths with only photocopies of Tanner’s Social Security card and birth certificate. The originals appear to have been destroyed, but no one seems to know why.

“We’re not really sure what happened to his documents,” Files said. “We do have copies, but we don’t have the originals.”

As a result, McCall said, the Pebworths were directed to take Tanner to the Social Security Administration office in Durant.

“They presented the documentation, but because the individual could not answer the questions that were asked of him because of his mental capabilities, they refused to give him a Social Security number, which has put them back in the same spot,” McCall said last Monday. “[That] is ironic to me. When I’m born, I can’t answer any questions, yet I can get a Social Security card issued.”

Files, however, believes she has found a potential solution. On Thursday, she traveled to Atoka and obtained Tanner’s signature on a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service form that she hopes will lead to federal acknowledgment of the young man’s existence.

“Without an ID, he can’t get a bank account, he can’t really do anything these days because you’ve got to have an ID,” Files said. “That was the holdup for the most part with the fishing license. But I found a form to request his citizenship and naturalization card, and we got that filled out. I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to be a short process with the government, but at least it’s going to be started and we’re down the right path.”

McCall praised the Pebworths for continuing to advocate for Tanner.

“They’re frustrated. They’re sweet people, and they’re just trying to help their son out with what seems to be a very simple issue, which our governments seem to make very difficult for some reason,” McCall said. “They love the young man, and he loves them. They’re just trying to do right by everybody, by their son, in accordance with the law of the state of Oklahoma. Somehow, a mole hill has become a mountain of an issue.”

Files also praised the Pebworths.

“Tanner is just a great kid. He loves to joke, and you just want to root for him because of how his life experiences had been up until the point of the Pebworths,” she said. “He has blossomed under their care. I don’t have enough good things to say about the Pebworths. They are — I hate to say ‘favorite,’ because I love all of my folks — but I do have a special place for them and Tanner.”

Madison Johnson is the DHS social services specialist for the Pebworth household, meaning she monitors their eligibility to provide foster care services. She called Tanner — who had never been to a restaurant before being placed with the Pebworths — a positive young man.

“He really has had a tough time before he came to the Pebworths,” Johnson said. “Tanner has really done well there. He’d never been camping before. He’d never had those experiences, and now he has, and he just loves them so much. He loves Amy (his case worker), and he loves everybody he meets.

“He is just such a sweet kid.”