Oklahoma children's shelters worry national child welfare experts

Oklahoma's use of shelters to house abused and neglected babies and other children is cause for major concern, according to several national child welfare experts.

Several national child welfare experts are critical of Oklahoma's use of shelters to house abused and neglected babies and other children.

“That's a really serious problem,” says Carole Shauffer, senior director of strategic initiatives for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

She said there has been a significant amount of child development research that shows every month that babies and toddlers spend in shelters can lead to behavioral, brain and cognitive changes that can be long lasting.

“It's because a fundamental task for those very young children, particularly children ages 6 months to 3 years, is to attach to one particular caregiver and that's how they learn. It's how they learn language. It's how they learn to rely on people ... So, if they have constantly changing caregivers, which is what happens in a shelter, they cannot attach to any one of them because they are not there long enough.”

Babies in shelters

John Mattingly, former commissioner for New York City's version of DHS, was shocked Oklahoma has babies in its shelters.

“Some teens you'll have trouble placing,” he said. “But infants and toddlers — foster parents, if you treat them right, will be beating down your doors to take care of those kids.”

That's not currently the case in Oklahoma, said Deborah Smith, director of DHS's children and family services division.

In a lot of Oklahoma families, both parents have jobs in a lot of Oklahoma families and finding child care on short notice can be a daunting task, she said.

Mattingly is unconvinced. “Yeah, so does the system help you to do that?” he asked. “Of course, you have to have a system that helps you have child care if you're going to ask foster parents to take care of kids.”

Complaints voiced

Oklahoma foster parents have complained at times about not receiving adequate support from DHS social workers. At a 2007 legislative hearing, one foster parent complained that she had tried unsuccessfully for three days to get a social worker to return her calls when she had a sick foster child. Another complained there were times when she had called both her social worker and the worker's supervisor, but was unable to even leave a message because both their mailboxes were full.

Smith said her agency has been studying why individuals drop out after inquiring about becoming foster parents. DHS supervisors are determined to improve the system, she said.

Reimbursement rates

One major issue has been reimbursement rates. DHS currently pays foster parents monthly rates of $365 for children ages 0 to 5, $430 for children ages 6 to 12, and $498.33 for children 13 and over. Those rates are about $200 a month less than the minimum monthly rates recommended by the Children's Rights child advocacy group in cooperation with the National Foster Parent Association and others. DHS is asking the state Legislature for more funds this year to close half the gap between the current rates and recommended minimum rates.

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