A data point in the Oklahoma Pinnacle Plan, the reform blueprint for the state Department of Human Services, graphically illustrates how desperately change is needed at the agency — and how money alone won't solve the problem.
The report notes the agency's underwhelming effort to recruit foster parents. According to the document, 5,000 families expressed an interest in becoming foster families in fiscal year 2011, but didn't make it through the approval process. An estimated 15 percent of those families dropped out because of “poor customer service.”
That's shocking and demonstrates an appalling culture of indifference or incompetence. At a time when foster families are desperately needed, available families are being driven away.
Those who have studied the agency say would-be foster parents report a wide range of challenges. DHS failures include basic courtesies such as returning telephone calls, but extend to more serious issues. Home studies seemingly take forever. Foster families report an inability to contact their case workers or, in other cases, have new case workers abruptly assigned who have an entirely new set of expectations.
When families are approved to serve as foster parents, they complain that DHS fails to inform them of a child's behavioral problems, putting even more stress on the foster family — and the child. And high case worker turnover leaves families not knowing whom to contact when a crisis arises.
Under those conditions, it's a wonder anyone is dedicated enough to qualify and continue serving as a foster parent.
DHS case workers report the agency is just as unresponsive and indifferent to their needs as it is to those seeking to become foster parents. As a result, employees get frustrated and leave, contributing to the high turnover that fuels the unnecessarily low number of foster-family approvals.
State Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City Republican who heads a bipartisan House group charged with studying DHS, says pay for foster parents and case workers should be increased as a matter of moral principle. But if that's all policymakers do, DHS's challenges with child placement will continue.
Nelson said policymakers must improve the culture of DHS for foster parents and those who work for the agency. Addressing just one side of that equation while ignoring the other will guarantee failure. Lowering caseloads to manageable levels will increase worker retention regardless of pay rates, benefiting DHS employees and families, including foster parent applicants.
Policymakers may also privatize foster family recruitment services when possible, and streamline agency administration to create clear lines of accountability.
These are steps in the right direction. Undoing years of cultural stagnation at DHS can't happen fast enough. There's enough misery in the world without augmenting it through bureaucratic apathy.
Nelson warns that improvement will occur in fits and starts. But he also believes the prospect for a course correction is bright thanks to broad support for reform — and the perception that DHS has already bottomed out.
“It can't be worse,” Nelson said. “It can only be better.”