Oklahoma foster care parents are stressed out and struggling because of low reimbursement rates and poor support and communication from state Department of Human Services workers, members of the state House Human Services Committee were told on Tuesday. "I've had some wonderful social workers, but I've had some who wouldn't return calls,” said Kay Hawkins, a Shawnee foster parent. "For three days I had a sick child and my social worker wouldn't return calls. ... I've had times when I didn't know who my social worker was.” Hawkins said the situation is stressful because foster parents are told to call their social worker when a child falls ill. Foster parent Leslie Owens said there were times when she called both her social worker and the worker's supervisor, only to discover that the voicemail for both was full — making it impossible to even leave a message. The agency does a poor job of communicating about various forms of assistance that are available, several foster parents complained. Hawkins said when she first got her foster children, she wasn't told they qualified for the free lunch program, so she ended up paying. Special subsidies are available to foster parents who take in siblings and children with special needs. Hawkins said it typically costs more to take care of an older child than a younger child, but she wasn't told that the subsidies she receives could be increased because her foster children had gotten older until she specifically asked. Hawkins said a DHS worker told her the worker wasn't allowed to tell her about the availability of an increased subsidy unless she asked. Karen Poteet, a DHS programs manager, told lawmakers the subsidies are "negotiable” based on changes in a child's or family's circumstances. Hawkins also complained that the state doesn't provide liability insurance coverage for foster parents. Actually, the state does provide liability coverage, Joani Webster, a programs administrator in DHS's children and family services division, told lawmakers. Hawkins just hadn't been told about it. Foster children qualify for Medicaid assistance when they receive medical and dental care, but many doctors and dentists refuse to take Medicaid patients, several foster parents complained. "Finding a doctor who will accept Medicaid is a problem,” said foster parent Lana Freeman. "Finding a dentist is a bigger problem.” DHS could save foster parents a great deal of frustration if they would simply provide them with a list of doctors and dentists in their area who will accept Medicaid, they said. State Rep. Scott BigHorse, D-Pawhuska, said there have been communication problems between DHS workers and foster parents for years and asked DHS officials why they hadn't acted to fix the problem. "This can't be the first time you've heard this,” BigHorse said. "Why in the past 10 years hasn't it been addressed?” DHS officials blamed staff turnover and said they are constantly trying to do better.
Costs add upFoster parents are paid a basic rate of $365 to $498 a month for each child, depending on the child's age. That's not enough, the foster parents said. Freeman said two foster children cost her $1,000 this week. One tore up a digital camera and another broke a Tiffany lamp. Hawkins said a foster child dropped her husband's $300 cell phone in the toilet. Freeman, who has cared for about 200 children in her home over the years, said children coming into foster care are younger and more disturbed than they used to be, which places more demands on foster parents. She said many of the children placed in her home had been sexually abused. To prepare foster parents for dealing with sexually abused children, DHS provides "three whole minutes of film training,” she said. Oklahoma has 3,800 foster homes, and that's not nearly enough to take care of all the children who need help, she said. Several foster parents complained about the lack of a respite program to assist foster parents when they run into special difficulties. Freeman said she asked for temporary respite assistance last year because her husband had cancer and she had to attend an important conference. She was told Oklahoma had no such program, so her husband had to watch five children even though he had a catheter at the time. Webster said DHS does now have a pilot respite program in McCurtain County and there is a proposal to expand that to six counties — one in each of six areas of the state. Funding is an obstacle, she indicated. Freeman said happy foster parents are the best foster parent recruiting tool a state can have and unhappy foster parents "kill recruitment.” It's a difficult job, she said, adding that on average, an allegation is made against a foster parent every two years that could destroy that family. "It's like playing leapfrog with a unicorn,” she quoted a friend as saying.