EVERY step of progress at the state Department of Human Services deserves recognition — especially when the winners are those who literally take baby steps. DHS officials announced last week that they've practically eliminated the need for overnight shelter stays for abused and neglected children under age 2. Before we move on to the areas that still need work, we must pause and acknowledge a job well done.
Needing to place a baby or young toddler into a shelter setting at all is hard to swallow. Leaving them overnight where they know not a soul and in a strange bed is the stuff of heartbreak. We don't take lightly the hard work of those who made this progress possible.
“OKDHS cannot do this work alone and we would like to thank all Oklahomans who have stepped up recently to become foster parents,” said Deborah Smith, director of DHS Child Welfare Services. “We would also like to thank all of our private partners and the faith community for helping recruit, train and support foster families.”
The reduction comes as part of the Pinnacle Plan, a DHS reform effort borne out of a class-action lawsuit settlement against the agency regarding children in state custody. Agency leaders readily acknowledge much work remains, even on the issue of shelters. Come this summer, the agency wants no overnight shelter stays for children younger than 6. This will take even more foster families than the 930 recruited so far this fiscal year. The agency's goal is to have 2,000 new foster families by June 30.
Truth is, the state can't give kids the innocence of childhood that comes with being born and raised in a healthy, nuclear family. For some children, the pain of losing that innocence is everlasting. But for others, DHS in general and foster care in particular truly is their best hope. It's also far better than abusive or neglectful home situations.
We can't say enough about the people who've stepped up to provide foster care to our state's most vulnerable children. We also recognize the herculean effort this requires from DHS workers, who are ultimately responsible for certifying and finding appropriate homes and the ongoing monitoring required of each foster care placement. The load is especially heavy given the rate at which the agency is adding new foster homes.
Meantime, The Oklahoman's Randy Ellis reported that shelter overcrowding for older children remains a critical issue. The number of children staying overnight at Oklahoma City and Tulsa shelters actually increased in November compared with a year earlier. Combined, shelters in the cities housed an average of 123 children in November.
No one can pretend any of the solutions to strengthen the state's child welfare safety net are easy or cheap. But we hope all Oklahomans can agree that the only choice on behalf of children is to keep pushing forward, and every improvement is worth acknowledging if not celebrating.