Oklahoma has gotten off to a rocky start in its initial efforts to implement child welfare reforms as part of a settlement agreement to a federal class-action lawsuit.
State Department of Human Services officials have submitted inaccurate data concerning foster home recruitment and shelter stays by children in state custody, according to the initial report released Wednesday by three out-of-state experts hired to monitor Oklahoma's compliance with the settlement agreement.
The state also has jeopardized reform efforts by failing to fully deliver promised annual pay increases for child welfare workers and foster parents, the report said.
“The report findings are troubling, and certainly call into question whether DHS is meeting its commitments to Oklahoma's children,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, the national advocacy organization that filed the lawsuit against DHS.
“In the face of acknowledged problems, DHS has been unable to supply adequate data and has adopted some seemingly questionable practices. Perhaps most detrimental, the state has failed to increase payments to foster parents or bolster caseworker salaries, both of which are critical to create lasting change.”
Lowry told The Oklahoman that her organization is so concerned by the report that it plans to file a formal complaint with the out-of-state monitors that could lead to the state being ordered to comply with its agreed upon reform plan.
DHS Director Ed Lake called his agency's reform efforts “a work in progress.”
“It's not a sprint. It's a marathon,” he said.
The outside monitors found that DHS repeatedly overcounted the number of new foster and adoptive homes it had recruited in reports the agency submitted.
DHS officials initially reported that 1,543 new foster and adoptive homes were recruited in fiscal year 2011, but that number was later lowered to 1,169 after the overseers identified numerous homes that had been double counted or otherwise should not have been included.
DHS also initially reported it had recruited 796 new traditional foster homes during fiscal year 2013 — 15 more that the agency's approved target.
However, the monitors said 53 of those homes had been double counted.
Lake said counting foster homes is more complicated than it sounds, because homes can be approved for various types of care.
For example, the same home can be approved as both a foster home and an adoptive home, which can lead to it being mistakenly counted twice, depending upon how data is gathered.
“We're not double counting homes on purpose,” Lake said. “Nobody's trying to manipulate the data.”