Oklahoma DHS officials re-evaluate use of children's shelters

“Babies should not be in children's shelters.” National experts say it. Oklahoma Department of Human Service workers agree. But walk into the Oklahoma City's state-run Pauline E. Mayer Children's Shelter for abused and neglected children and there they are.
BY RANDY ELLIS AND ROBBY TRAMMELL Published: February 12, 2012

“Babies should not be in children's shelters.”

National experts say it; state DHS workers agree.

But walk into the Oklahoma City's state-run Pauline E. Mayer Children's Shelter for abused and neglected children and there they are.

Six babies were being cared for at the shelter one day last month when reporters from The Oklahoman visited.

One of the babies had been there 66 days, including Christmas.

The 8-month-old infant was being fed through a feeding tube. He had a congenital heart defect and other medical problems.

“He's a sweet child,” a Department of Human Services supervisor said. “It's hard to find foster parents when the life expectancy is not that long.”

The baby since has been placed.

The other babies did not appear to have obvious medical issues. Finding foster homes for them was not expected to be as difficult.

Reform discussions

DHS officials are re-evaluating Oklahoma's use of shelters — particularly for babies — as part of reform discussions now under way. DHS officials agreed to make child welfare improvements when they settled a federal class-action lawsuit.

Under the settlement, three out-of-state child welfare experts will approve and oversee the reforms. The three already have toured the Oklahoma City shelter.

Two of those experts previously headed the New Jersey child welfare system. That system has been praised nationally for doing away with children's shelters. Shelters there have been replaced by adding foster homes through vigorous recruitment efforts and policy changes.

The three reform monitors have not yet publicly spoken about what they think should be done in Oklahoma.

Volunteers rock babies

Change may be coming. But, in the meantime, DHS workers and volunteers show up daily at the Oklahoma City shelter to rock babies and do what they can to help the children develop.

Stefanie Jones, Chesapeake Midstream Partners procurement specialist, says she enjoys volunteering two or three times a week during her lunch break to rock babies in the shelter's nursery. “They are so cute — my kids are older — for me, I get my baby fix.”

“The people who work here are wonderful,” she said. “This will make you want to be a foster parent.”

Jones said she wishes the nursery was bigger because it seems kind of cramped.

Another Chesapeake employee, Kristina Drawbridge, an associate petro-physical technician, said she volunteers in the nursery three times a week. “I love it, absolutely,” she said.

High occupancy rate

Babies are not the only children kept at the shelter.

There were 54 children in the shelter at the start of the day reporters from The Oklahoman visited. That's more than double the cap of 25 that the Oklahoma Legislature set in a 2009 law. It's also six over the occupancy limit that causes the state fire marshal to issue safety warnings.



A shelter is not a place to live. It's not a place for babies to stay. But it is a safe place to move a child to.”

Patricia Rowe

supervisor and trainer at Pauline E. Mayer Children's Shelter in Oklahoma City

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