The overseers expressed concerns that more than a fourth of the 1,744 resource homes that DHS reported as being open and available on June 30 had no children placed in them, even though the state has been keeping children in shelters while complaining of a shortage of available foster homes.
Of the 456 foster homes with no children on the last day of June, 171 had not had a child in three months and 28 had not had a placement for more than a year, the report stated.
The data raise “serious questions about DHS' foster home practices,” as well at the process the agency uses for closing homes that are no longer accepting child placements, the report stated.
Overseers said their review of cases also raised concerns that DHS workers have been pushing kinship homes that provide foster care for relatives to also provide foster care or emergency foster care for non-relatives — even in cases where records indicate the providers had indicated they only wanted to care for relatives.
Lowry called the tactic “extremely questionable” and said it can lead to children being bounced around among placements, which she said is harmful.
Lowry joined the out-of-state monitors in voicing concern about the agency's high turnover rate and its backlog of 1,833 child welfare investigations.
“The situation is quite dangerous to children,” Lowery said, describing Oklahoma's backlog as the biggest she has seen in any state.
Overseers said that after some initial success in reducing the number of infants and toddlers in state shelters, the numbers have increased in recent months as the agency has struggled with an increase in the number of children taken into state custody.
The overseers did praise DHS for its progress in some areas, including its reorganization of the agency to create a Child Welfare Division and its appointment of a new leadership and management team.
Lake said trying to make child welfare reforms while going through such a drastic overhaul has been a challenge.
“In some cases, this is sort of like building a plane while you're flying a plane,” Lake said.
“We've made progress in a lot of areas, but the context is, unfortunately, we still feel like we're paddling upstream because of the influx in the number of children in custody. The increased numbers put more pressure on everything else we're trying to do.”
Lake said DHS has accelerated its hiring of child welfare workers, but it takes time to get employees trained and out in the field.
“We're committed to funding and carrying out every initiative of this plan,” Lake said.