Oklahoma’s DHS child welfare reform efforts have shown improvement in some areas, but are falling woefully short in others, according to a report issued by independent monitors retained to oversee compliance with a settlement to a class-action lawsuit.
“We’re very disappointed in the efforts that are being made and in what really seem to be profound problems in the agency at this point,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, the New York-based nonprofit organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of children in state custody.
Lowry said she is very concerned about the effectiveness of Department of Human Services leadership and if the agency doesn’t start showing more progress, “there may be a need for some further action.”
DHS Director Ed Lake said the agency continues to work on its deficiencies.
“The pace of a few of our initiatives hasn’t been what we all wanted it to be, but that certainly hasn’t been for lack of effort or support for our work,” Lake said. “Our incredibly dedicated caseworkers, supervisors and managers are making extraordinary efforts to improve our system. We believe progress is being made, even with the number of children in our care, and the data supports our belief.”
Getting children out of state shelters and into foster homes was one of the major goals to which DHS officials agreed.
DHS has made “good faith efforts” toward that goal for children under 2 years old, but it has come at the expense of older children, according to the independent monitors’ report.
The agency experienced a “marked increase” in the number of nights children ages 6 to 12 were required to spend in state shelters from July to December 2013, and those numbers are still rising, the report said.
“There is a similar upward trend for children 13 years of age and older,” the report said.
The monitors said they “remain very concerned about the growing number of shelter placements for children ages 6 and older.”
The independent monitors also had harsh criticism for DHS’ foster home recruitment efforts, noting the agency was given a goal of achieving a net gain of 615 foster homes during the fiscal year that will end June 30, but had only added 50 foster homes halfway through the fiscal year.
“The pace, quality and progress of DHS’ efforts to achieve these target outcomes ... does not represent good faith efforts to achieve substantial and sustained progress toward these target outcomes,” the report said.
The monitors also criticized high DHS caseloads, saying that based on preliminary data they did “not yet find evidence that workloads are improving in a substantial and sustained direction.”
“DHS will need to demonstrate very significant movement over the next several months,” the report said.
Lowry said she’s not impressed with the state’s progress.
“Oklahoma’s efforts to date are a continuation of the harmful state practices that required the lawsuit in the first place,” she said. “Although the people in charge have changed and the buck now stops with the governor, children are not any better off. The difference is that there are independent monitors who can obtain court orders against the state if there are continuing failures.”
Lake said his agency’s efforts to meet its goals have been hampered by a huge increase in the number of abused and neglected children being taken into state custody. The agency had about 8,500 children in state custody when the reform plan was designed, but that number has since grown to about 11,400.
“It has been an uphill battle at almost every turn with the unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of children being placed in state custody,” he said.
“This is not the same department it was two years ago,” Lake insisted. “We are headed in the right direction, but it will take time to get where we want to be. This is only the second year of a five-year improvement plan and we still have much work ahead.”