A child under the age of 2 ended up being placed in a Department of Human Services shelter less than two weeks after an improvement plan's Dec. 31 deadline to place nearly all babies and 1-year-olds in its care in family-like settings.
The child, along with two siblings, was placed in the shelter on a Friday and stayed four days until DHS supervisors were told of the situation on the following Monday and found a foster home, Deborah Smith, director of the agency's child welfare services, said Tuesday.
The foster home had been available that Friday, she said, but the child welfare worker and the supervisor handling the case were unaware. The child and the two siblings were taken from a metropolitan county to a rural shelter about three hours away.
“We had a glitch,” Smith said.
Child welfare workers and supervisors since have been told to let her and others know when they are having problems finding a foster home and they will all pitch in and work to find one, Smith said.
“If they haven't been successful by a certain time that day, then everybody gets on and then you're able to expand … and you start being able to pull in more resources,” she said. “Where they've called 10 foster homes, if you get five more people working on it you can call 50 foster homes. You're going to be more successful the more people you have engaged in trying to find the right family.”
DHS child welfare workers may still use a shelter if they believe that's the best place for the child, Smith said.
“I haven't seen one yet,” Smith said. “We want to leave it open so that people don't make a bad decision, either.”
Eliminating the use of state shelters for overnight stays of nearly all abused and neglected children under age 2 was the first major change implemented by the agency that was recommended in the Pinnacle Plan, a five-year improvement plan intended to reform the state's child welfare system.
A child under age 2 may be placed in a shelter if the child has at least three siblings and all are placed in the same shelter if it's in the best interest to keep them all together, Smith said. Other exceptions to the rule include medically fragile children requiring 24-hour supervision and teen mothers with infants,
The plan required DHS to not place children under the age of 2 in shelters overnight by Dec. 31. Smith said the agency had met its goal and had followed that guideline until the Jan. 11-14 incident.
“We should have worked harder,” Smith said.
State officials agreed to the plan as part of a settlement to a class-action lawsuit over the treatment of children in state custody.
The next major milestone for DHS in reducing shelter usage is June 30, when the agency is committed to ensuring that no child under age 6 spends a night in a shelter. About 30 children under age 6 are in shelters now, Smith said.
By June 30, 2014, no child under age 13 is to spend a night in a shelter. About 150 children between 6 and 12 years are old are in shelters now, she said.
Under the Pinnacle Plan, the agency also has made a commitment to recruit at least 2,000 new foster families by June 30, or about 500 more than were recruited the previous fiscal year.
The agency had recruited 960 new foster families by Jan. 7. While ahead of last year's pace, it is behind what is needed to achieve the plan's goal.
We should have worked harder.”
director of DHS child welfare services