Audit slams Oklahoma DHS problems

BY JAY F. MARKS Modified: February 26, 2009 at 10:53 am •  Published: February 26, 2009
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The push to improve Oklahoma’s child welfare system gained steam Wednesday as House leaders unveiled an audit that criticized the state for removing too many children from their homes.

Oklahoma has nearly twice the U.S. average of children in state custody.

Oklahoma has 13.4 children out of every thousand in state custody, compared to 6.9 per thousand nationally, according to the audit by independent firm Hornby Zeller Associates.

"If we can just get the number of kids coming into the system down to the national average, we’ll have half as many kids coming into the system,” said Rep. Ron Peters, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services. "That addresses the workload issue. It addresses the stress levels. It addresses a lot of things.”

Peters, one of seven lawmakers studying the system, said legislation will be introduced Monday to address several issues cited in the audit.

Peters said other fixes include enhanced training for child welfare workers, a centralized hot line to report child abuse and neglect allegations, and an emphasis on in-home services for families. He said reduced use of state-run shelters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa should help save money to pay for changes suggested by auditors.

DHS Director Howard Hendrick said the agency will do whatever it can to improve the system.


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BY THE NUMBERS

DHS Director Howard Hendrick reported on the agency’s progress at this week’s meeting of the state Oklahoma Commission for Human Services. His report on the first six months of fiscal year 2009 indicated:


• The number of Oklahoma children in foster care has dropped by more than 2,000 in the past 20 months, leaving the state at its lowest level in more than five years.


• Fewer incidents of child abuse and neglect are being confirmed, fewer children are being removed from their homes and children are going home or being adopted at faster rates.


• More than 900 children were adopted in the final six months of 2008, the most ever in any six-month period.


• There are more child welfare workers handling cases than ever before and workers are more tenured, with more than 700 having more than two years experience.


• The number of children in care per case worker is at the lowest level in more than five years.


HOUSE BILL 1743 At a glance

House Bill 1743 is meant to address problems cited in an independent audit of Oklahoma’s child welfare system, lawmakers said Wednesday. Rep. Ron Peters outlined a number of changes that would be made if the bill is enacted into law:

→Define "safety” and "risk” so only children in imminent danger are removed from their homes.

→Set protocols for assessing and investigating cases.

→Do away with "standing orders” that allow police to take children into state custody without consulting a judge.

→Phase out use of public-run shelters in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

→Require workers to visit privately with children in custody every two or three months.

→Establish a passport program so foster parents will have relevant information about the children in their care.

→Set up an oversight committee to monitor progress.

The bill, which deals with five of the 25 recommendations from auditors, will be introduced Monday, Peters said.

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