The number of Oklahoma children in state custody is soaring.
That number has risen from about 8,000 four years ago to 10,428 today — frustrating Oklahoma Department of Human Services officials in their efforts to meet performance targets agreed upon as part of a settlement agreement to a federal class-action lawsuit.
“We're not where we want to be,” acknowledged Deborah Smith, DHS's director of child welfare services.
Smith discussed the agency's efforts to meet the performance targets of a five-year child welfare reform plan during Wednesday's inaugural joint meeting of four DHS citizens' advisory panels.
Progress is being made, Smith assured panel members.
Smith noted that the agency recruited 796 new traditional foster homes in the fiscal year that ended June 30, which were actually 15 more than the agency's goal of 781 for the year.
But with increasing numbers of children being taken into DHS custody, the state still has a great need for more high quality foster homes, she said.
DHS has had less success in recruiting therapeutic foster homes that are needed to take in children with emotional problems. The agency had a target of 150 new therapeutic foster homes last fiscal year, but was only able to recruit 86, Smith said.
The rising number of children in custody also has contributed to DHS falling short of its targeted goal of eliminating the use of state shelters for children under 2 by last Dec. 31.
Smith said 47 children under age 2 spent at least one night in shelters during the first 6 months of this year.
She said 20 of those children fall under an exemption that allows shelter stays for young children who are part of large sibling groups, medically fragile or babies of teen mothers in custody.
Smith said she chose to let the other 27 spend the night, despite the agreed-upon goal, because workers were not comfortable with alternative family placements or foster homes available at the time.
She lamented that the number of children under 2 spending nights in shelters has risen in recent months and said 17 such children spent 150 nights in shelters in June.
Rising numbers of children in state custody also are hampering DHS in its efforts to reduce caseloads to manageable levels, she indicated.
Currently, only about 22 percent of DHS workers have caseloads within levels agreed upon as part of the settlement. The agency needs to increase compliance to 45 percent by the end of the calendar year to meet its target, Smith said.
The agency needs to have been hiring and training about 80 workers a month for the past 9 or 10 months to be on pace to meet the goal, but has only been able to hire about 50 workers a month, she said.
“It's scary work,” Smith said. “It's overwhelming.”
Steven Dow offered an informed perspective on Smith's report, having once served on DHS's governing commission that was abolished by voters in November before being named as a member of the new DHS advisory panel on children and family issues.
“It sounds like in some areas sort of significant progress has been made,” he said. “In other areas, I think there's clearly a lot of work still to be done and I think some of what we had in mind has not happened as rapidly as we wanted.”
“The number of increasing kids in care is obviously very disturbing and the fact that we've not been able to increase the number of child welfare workers adequately means we haven't been able to drive down caseloads to numbers that we wanted,” he said. “And the fact that we still have young kids in shelters is in my mind a deep concern.”
Karen Waddell, chairwoman of the new DHS advisory panel on children and family issues, said she is puzzled by the dramatic increase of children in state custody, but looks forward to working with DHS officials, church groups and other organizations to come up with solutions.
“I think the panels are designed to help provide a partnership for our children — not necessarily for the Department of Human Services, but for our children and families,” she said. “I see lots of different groups and people and synagogues and churches and everybody saying, ‘Let's make this happen.'”