Overcrowding of DHS shelters for children violates Oklahoma state law

The number of abused and neglected children being kept at Oklahoma's two state-run shelters has soared this past year in disregard for Oklahoma law.
BY RANDY ELLIS, NOLAN CLAY and ROBBY TRAMMELL Staff Writers Published: February 12, 2012

DHS officials have been violating state law and endangering the lives of dozens of abused and neglected children by placing them in Oklahoma City's overcrowded state shelter, documents reveal.

“The overcrowding of this facility creates a serious and immediate risk to the lives and life safety and welfare to all occupants and residents,” a state fire marshal's agent wrote following a May 31 inspection of the overcapacity Pauline E. Mayer Children's Shelter in Oklahoma City.

“I don't like it,” said state Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa.

Peters was author of a 2009 state law that directed the Department of Human Services to dramatically reduce the populations of its Oklahoma City and Tulsa shelters to no more than 25 each.

“I think they've ignored the law and are doing what they want to do,” Peters said.

Deborah Smith, director of DHS's children and family services division, insisted her agency is not intentionally ignoring the law.

“We don't want children in shelters,” Smith said. “We want children with families.”

Imminent danger

The problem is children must be removed from homes when their safety is in imminent danger and Oklahoma doesn't have enough foster homes to place them, she said.

“We have lots of recruitment efforts and we work hard to bring foster families into the system, but we're just not meeting the need,” she said.

The fire marshal's inspector found 53 children in the Oklahoma City shelter when he inspected it last May. Its licensed capacity is 48. The shelter was ordered to present a plan of correction within 24 hours.

The problem wasn't fixed. In fact, the shelter exceeded its licensed capacity 48 days from October through December, peaking at 60 on Nov. 20.

The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth responded by sending the shelter's director a letter in December threatening to start procedures to revoke the shelter's certification if an adequate corrective plan wasn't presented by Jan. 6.

The commission is an independent oversight state agency that monitors child services programs.

The shelter was able to stave off closure — at least for now — by presenting the commission with a plan to divert children to several nonprofit shelters that contract with the state whenever the Oklahoma City shelter nears capacity.

‘Fire watcher' hired

Whenever the shelter is overcapacity, DHS hires a certified firefighter called a “fire watcher” who patrols the building, Smith said. DHS also has a contingency plan to use an empty cottage at White Fields Group Home that can house up to 18 children. That would involve transporting children, food and staff to their Piedmont site and the agency has not yet resorted to that, she said.

Tulsa's DHs-run Laura Dester Children's Shelter also has been confronting overcrowding problems.

The Tulsa shelter has a licensed capacity of 63, but averaged 66 children in October, 53 in November, 65 in December and 64 in January. Its population recently peaked at 76 on Jan. 22 and 23.

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